I’m one of those strange individuals who likes history. I think the majority of people look at history somewhat disparagingly. The range of complains against history can vary. We can view history as simply dates and places of the past with no bearing on us today. Another way to heighten our arrogance regarding history is to view people in the past as some sort of primitive idiots who just didn’t know any better and who therefore have no merit in our modern “advanced” world today.
I’m not sure why these attitudes abound. Maybe it is rooted in the way we are taught history. The focus is often on dates, places, and people who are long dead and there is little attempt often to try to connect how it is important to today. Not that I am calling to eliminate these things, but it just seems that they are left unrooted in anything larger. Just learning about dates, names, and places isn’t all that history should be. I think that we should be able to use history in ways more than this, and that it can be an important asset in how we view the events of the world.
The first use I’d give for history is one of grounding. Having a good grasp of history allows us to be aware of where we’ve come from. It is understanding the negatives and positives of the past and using that knowledge to determine how we are to react today. For example we’re currently going through a period of economic decline and difficulty. There is no doubt that certain elements of the current predicament are unique to this situation, however I do believe that our reactions need to be tempered by history. A quick comparison between today’s economic issues and the issues faced in the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s really seems to make today’s figures pale. The Great Depression was also a global depression much like today’s but the unemployment rates at least for the U.S. were much, much higher. It’s peak was 25% unemployment or more while our highest rate looking over the data has been 10% in October of 2009.
My point here is not to say it isn’t difficult out there. It is difficult, but there are some pockets of people who make it seem like the end of the world. A little knowledge of history gives us the grounding to be able to compare and say, well it is bad but it has been worse. Perhaps an example we can relate better with is our own history. It is the idea of being grounded in remembering your history, what it is like to be a kid and being able to retain that grounding when you have kids yourself or having to deal with them. If you lose that grounding you can forget the bad things your generation did as kids and make the current generation out to be completely terrible.
The other use of history that I think is important is history as example. It is being able to look back at the mistakes and successes of history and trying to learn from those examples. This may be more difficult to do because the situations and motivations for a certain act in history may not be fully known or able to parallel today, but some practical thoughts can come from this way of viewing history.
Take for instance the example of Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests for Civil Rights. It is perhaps a common picture in the American mind, but it can serve as an example of how to fight for ones rights. On the flip side trying to learn from the negative example of governments and leaders who oppress their people and how that situation began. Whether the issue be slavery, church tradition becoming stronger than Biblical truth (as I would argue happened with the Holy Roman Empire), or any other issue.
I think these two ways of approaching history are valuable to our ability to think and prepare for the future. One word of warning though, we do have to be careful. It is easy to simply try to use an example out of historical context and stretch it to simply fit our particular view on something. Whether it is playing fast and loose with history and trying to revise it to fit our thoughts or failing to own up to the negatives that came out of a particular way of doing something in the past. If we were able to do this more, whether as Americans or Christians I think we would be able to get a better view of where we are and how we should react.