FOR THE LOVE OF HISTORY

At heart, I am a historian. Inspired at a young age by my father, history — reading it, studying it, learning from it — became as much a part of my growth and development as my faith and my family. It wasn’t surprising then, that I became a history teacher.

I left teaching in 2008, but remain the history nerd I’ve always been. Because teaching is also in my DNA, I started writing and sharing my musings through social media and other outlets. Four years ago, I created this website, which is always evolving, but which has provided me with an outlet for my passion.

My thoughts and opinions are my own and are not offered to disparage or undermine in any way the thoughts or opinions of others.


Why Does History Matter? 

“All people and peoples are living histories. To take a few obvious examples: communities speak languages that are inherited from the past. They live in societies with complex cultures, traditions and religions that have not been created on the spur of the moment. People use technologies that they have not themselves invented. … So understanding the linkages between past and present is absolutely basic for a good understanding of the condition of being human. That, in a nutshell, is why History matters. It is not just ‘useful’, it is essential.”

~ Penelope J. Corfield, Professor Emeritus, University of London.
Image from Shutterstock | Licensed for use.

First, we ARE history. From our genetic makeup, to the technologies we use, to the things we value and believe in, we are living products of history.

Second, the past teaches us about the present in a myriad of ways. Looking back through the long lens of history we discover patterns. After all history is created by living, thinking beings. Through research we can examine historical documents, records, and publications that reveal the ideas, motives, philosophies, and practices at the root of all human, and therefore historical, events. 

Inevitably, examination of historical records reveals, over and over again, the following truths:

  • Some ideas led to growth, inventive thinking, and positive change; while others led to destruction and chaos;
  • Some led to increased freedom and prosperity; while others led to oppression and persecution; and finally,
  • As history is created by human beings who are imperfect, it is also imperfect, but it’s never irrelevant. 

Why? Because the point of studying history is this: through critical assessment of the events, the players, the ideas, and the outcomes, what worked, what did not, we learn from the past and then by applying that knowledge to inform our present, we grow. 

“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”

Abraham Lincoln (in the context of The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865)

Third, our shared heritage is a vital part of the fabric that unites us. On a personal level, our family history provides us with a sense of belonging; a sense of identity. It can be an extreme source of pride, as well as a foundation upon which to build. Examining our family history, is no different than examining our national history. 

Understanding our history is vital to the future of our country. That shared heritage is what unites us as Americans. Certainly, it’s not perfect, but it’s ours. From generation to generation we’ve learned, we’ve grown, we’ve evolved as individuals and as a country. That shared heritage is also why history education matters. As Dr. William Bennett, author and former Secretary of Education stated, “If we don’t know where we came from, what our legacy is, what our inheritance is, how will we then support and defend it?”

Fourth, by studying history we acquire a range of skills that are useful in almost every area of our lives. Most notably, studying history creates informed citizens, with the critical thinking skills, research skills, and general awareness to make logical choices and informed decisions. Our nation’s founders believed this to be so critical to sustaining democracy, that they envisioned a vast public education system that prepared youth to be active participants in the system of self-government the Constitution created.

“Wisdom and knowledge . . . diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties. . . . [Thus,] it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the . . . public schools.”

John Adams, Massachusetts Constitution of 1780

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” ~ George Orwell, British journalist and author of Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) | Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

You don’t have to be a historian or even a formal student of history, to explore the past and to develop and apply the skills and lessons learned.

We engage in similar activities on a personal and social level daily, almost without thinking. How often do we research reviews of others’ experiences with a product or service we are considering before committing to a purchase? How often do we “put out feelers” through our social media accounts for recommendations on the same? How many times have we asked a family member or friend for advice simply because we value their experience and therefore their ideas and wisdom?

History, in the formal sense, is really no different. We look at the past to assist us in making decisions that impact our present and our future. Growth, afterall, requires us to examine the past in order to learn from it, thus, enabling us to move forward with wisdom and purpose rather than holding on to anger, discontent, and malice. As Winston Churchill so wisely offered, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”

“There is one mind common to all individual men……..Of the works of this mind history is the record. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. All the facts of history pre-exist as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit to the manifold world.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, History Essays ~ first series, 1841

JN Fenwick (© 2021-22)