The Importance of History, Today

A lot of times when people find out that I’m going back to school, the first obvious question is to ask what I’m studying.  When I answer “history,” I get a lot of mixed responses, varying between an empathetic “ugh” to follow-up questions like “why?”  I get it.  History can be a dry subject to people who don’t have a passion for it, and it a subject that many people avoided like the plague except to complete general education requirements when pursuing their chosen degree path.  But I’ve always had a passion for history – I view it like a puzzle with lots and lots of moving pieces.  To make it even more complicated, the farther back in history you go, the less reliable the pieces become.  Sometimes they’re almost completely destroyed.  Sometimes you only have a partial piece, and you have to figure out where it fits on the larger board.  Sometimes all you have are descriptions of a piece.

In our modern age, we’re accustomed to always being connected to everything, from our friends via social media to people around the globe with little more than the push of a button.  Everything in our life can be captured with a selfie-stick or a video camera.  We record and share our experiences around the world in little more than a minute, and can get instant feedback.  In such a connected and social day and age, it’s often hard to relate to a time and place where such connections were not only impossible but unsafe as well.  It was dangerous to mingle and share stories with people from a different tribe – they may be gathering information in order to launch an attack against your village, putting your family and your life at risk.  We see some of that in our modern age as well.  But understanding history gives us a window into decoding the preset as well as the past.  For example, we know that tribalism is often fueled by fear, and that xenophobia and discrimination can lead to dangerous and immoral actions on the part of a nation’s leadership.  That separating people by their differences and dehumanizing groups of people can lead to atrocities that will be felt for generations to come.  That scorched-earth policies can not only demoralize and defeat a bigger foe, but have a negative impact on the conqueror as well.  Given the horror and bloodshed that can be investigated from a historical perspectives sets off early warning signs about modern atrocities taking place around the world in our own age, and allows us to step up and stop things from happening before they’re able to take root.

While history can seem boring and foreign to a lot of us in our modern, technologically advanced age, I find it to be even more important than ever given our current global climate.  If we’re able to spot symptoms of a greater problem before casting our votes, for example, we can potentially express our voice and make sure that our values are heard in our own generation while simultaneously setting an example for the generations to come.  In other cases, we can learn from the mistakes that our parent’s generation made and do our part to correct them.  We can set a template for an idealized world that may never be realized but can be reached for with enthusiasm until its ultimate goal can be reached – or at least moved towards.  The truth is that we’re all a part of history every single day.  We view the events of the past in many different ways – with pride, with disdain, with disgust or even with fondness – but its also important for us to keep in mind how future generations will view us.  It’s time to decide in the present what legacy we want to leave for those who come after us – for those students that will be studying our history in the generations and centuries to come.

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