Why Study History?

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Photo by Darran Shen on Unsplash

Studying history often gets a bad rap. It is seen just as a long dull list of dates and dead people. However, I find history really interesting. It can also be sobering, tragic and sometimes, downright horrific. But I believe that if you want to know where we are going in the future, you need to know where we have been

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey

When we delve into the past, we can trace the movement of people, ideas and changes in cultures and societies. History provides a fascinating revelation of how our forebears thought, lived and died. It highlights achievements in medicine and science, as well as the devastating consequences of war, famine and disease.

Ancient history often seems quite remote to us here in the 21st century, but it is surprising how we can join the dots from then to here and now, one thought leading to another, one event leading to another, one era evolving into another. History is not just the story of some ancient people, in a far away land, in a time forgotten. History is the story of us.

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” – David McCullough

We can go back hundreds or even thousands of years, to medieval Europe or to ancient Greece, or we can just go back to a time that is still in living memory. Even though we are now living in the 21st century, the events of the 20th century are still clear as bell for many of us. Some of us might still remember where we were when JFK was shot, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon or when the twin towers came down. However, it still feels somewhat startling to discover that the time of your childhood is now considered history, even if it only feels like yesterday.

Photos by Cristina Gottardi, Tom Parkes & Holger Link on Unsplash

When we wander back through history, we can find stories of ordinary people, just like us, living, working, breeding and dying, and events that changed the world, like fire, sea navigation, the printing press. For many of us, the 20th century has been a period of rapid change, of great achievements and of unspeakable horror. If you were to make a list of the top ten events of the 20th century that changed the world, what would you choose?

While everybody’s list might look a little different, I think there would be some events that would make it onto every list. Here’s a list that I came across recently.

Top 10 Most Important Events of the 20th Century

  1. World War I and World War II
  2. Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945)
  3. Holocaust (1933-1945)
  4. Rise of Hitler (1919-1933)
  5. Great Depression (1929-1939)
  6. Discovery of Penicillin (1928)
  7. Fall of Berlin Wall (1989)
  8. Landing on the Moon (1969)
  9. Bombing of Pearl Harbor (1941)
  10. Assassination of JFK (1963)

How does it compare with your list? For me, the two World Wars and the Holocaust always rank highly in my mind. And it doesn’t seem to matter how much we think we already know about these events, there is always more for us to learn. We can read about the facts of WWI and the Holocaust, but we can only imagine how it must have actually felt for those who went through it and for those who survived. With Europe in ruins and the horror of the Holocaust revealed, the question both then and now is – how did we come to this?

And this is where the study of history comes in. We can look back years, even decades before, and trace the ideas, the events, the people. But – we need to be careful.

“historians always know how the story ended; vision in hindsight is always perfect.” (Findley & Rothney, 2011, p77)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. In the full knowledge of what we know now, we can look back and see what could or should have happened, what world leaders should have or should not have done. It’s so easy to point the finger and cast judgement. Would we have chosen any differently?

Perhaps we might wish we could turn back time and change the course of history, but then we would not be where we are today. It could be better or it could be worse – we will never know. Whether tragic or horrific, amazing or marvellous, the events of the past have made us who we are today. The things we do today will be the history of the future. Let’s do all we can to make it a good one.

 

Findley, CV & Rothney, JAM 2011, Twentieth-Century World, 7th edn, Wadsworth, Belmont CA.

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