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The Case for History

Posted by Anthony on October 7, 2008

By Anthony J. Aschettino

One of the first obligations of any society, immediately after such a thing as ensuring the safety of the society, should be looking after the welfare of the next generation. This impulse can be seen at all levels of any civilized society: parents (or at least any parent worth their salt) will gladly give their life to protect their children, and of all the crimes humans may commit against one another the lowest ranks in our prisons are reserved for those who have committed offenses against children.

It is not surprising, then, that during the current election cycle both candidates are talking about the need to invest in the future by improving education and issues such as health care, both of which are critical for the development of America’s youth. Yet when it comes to discussing education, the subjects mentioned are always the same: science and math. This is not terribly surprising, since America is a land that values technological improvement and has long been the vanguard when it comes to the development and expropriation of technology in all disiplines. During a time of increasingly complex threats in fields such as medicine and warfare one could forgive this emphasis on those subjects which seem to promise the most advancement against such problems. The general failing in such a mode of thought, however, is the subjugation of history to a second tier when it comes to the subjects stressed in schools and in the general public.

History is a most contentious subject precisely because of its very nature: it is unlike math in that it is filled with debatable arguments instead of concrete proofs, and unlike science in that there are some areas against which no amount of experiments can prove anything conclusively; of all the subjects studied there is perhaps only one in which more conflicting ideas can be held and accepted as legitimate, and religion itself is a product of and falls into the realm of history. It is malleable in many ways: nobody can argue, for example, that the Roman Empire fell; there are dozens of theories about why it fell, when it fell, and how it fell, and most of these are legitimate because they are not exclusive to one another.

So why, then, is history perhaps the most important subject to study? Precisely because it is not something as concrete as math or science; because it does not require the memorization of equations or have a seeming disconnect with human emotion. It is the story of humanity from its inception and the tale of everything we as human beings have experienced since our earliest days. It is filled with stories of extreme bravery and courage as well as callous indifference and malevolent cruelty. It shows how far we have come in our collective understanding of what life is and how we place value on things. Perhaps most of all, it teaches us where we have made mistakes in the past and how we can avoid such things in the future.

Societies that ignore history often find themselves in a place where they have no real connection to the past. They find themselves committing the same errors that have been made before by other civilizations and they cannot explain why their efforts have fallen short just the same. They engage in military ventures that reap a terrible harvest and economic failures that cripple their societies because they are ignorant of how these things have happened before. They fall prey to the axiom of Santayana and, most sadly, do not even understand why.

Even more critical is the fact that history can and often has been manipulated by different powers to suit their whims, and it is this that makes a good understanding of history so important. A mathematician from ancient Greece would have understood that two plus two equaled four; one could have shown him how calculus developed and he would have eventually seen the truth in the math. Gregor Mendel would have nodded approvingly at our understanding of DNA and how it sprang from his simple observations of inheritance traits in pea plants. Yet history can be warped and changed by anyone willing to make a concerted effort. Suddenly, without a solid background in history, people can be made to believe in things so ridiculous as dinosaurs existing at the same time as humans and as disgraceful as a disbelief in the Holocaust. Religions are usually the biggest perverters of history because they seek not to understand history as it occurred in reality but rather attempt to make it fit within the narrow spectrum of their belief system. They are not alone, however, and one can even see this trend in political issues, such as the argument that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by American forces had nothing to do with the alleged “Weapons of Mass Destruction” but was rather a democracy-building project.

It is critical that American schoolchildren develop not only a solid understanding of history (and at that, of real history and not some agenda-driven interpretation) but the tools to be able to see through the machinations of those who would pervert history for their own benefit. America must develop a generation that understands the past and having that understanding can go forward to better this world by implementing the lessons of history. The next generation of diplomats and politicians must have this understanding just as much as the next generation of economists. There is no substitute for this knowledge, and dishonesty will only lead to a generation of ignorant buffoons who view the world through their own rose-colored glasses rather than reality. The great leaders of the past, no matter what field, all had in common a solid understanding of history; let us hope for the future of The United States that our current generation sees fit to engender its progeny with the great tool of a love for history.

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One Response to “The Case for History”

  1. […] The Case For History Jump to Comments By Anthony J Aschettino […]

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