Perspectives: Why we study history

OPINION – The sheer magnitude of people, events and dates that comprise the history of mankind make it impossible for all but the all-knowing to fully understand world history. Still, history can be an incomparable mentor for those who are willing to patiently and deliberately explore it.

The first lesson is that history itself does not teach lessons. What we know of history is often the product of historians who have sought to construct a plausible and comprehensive narrative based upon the evidence that is available to them in their day.

Their efforts are often sincere and scholarly, but there can be no retelling of events, things and people without the historian’s own subjective perceptions shaping how they all fit together. This means that any student of history will have to make his or her own judgments and apply reasoning to derive what wisdom may be found in the historical record.

There are two ways that the student of history can approach this quest for understanding.

• The first is to seek to understand historical events from the viewpoint of the participants according to their understanding at the time the events were actually taking place.

• The second approach is to study history with the question “what do these past events mean to me today?”

Of these two approaches, the first is more objective.

History consists of much more than a collection of actual names, dates and events. It also includes the legendary stories like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Shakespeare’s works and any stories that a people tell of themselves to establish a sense of cultural identity.

The legendary historical record in many ways paints a far more accurate picture of how a certain people thought, what they valued, and how they saw themselves. Without a sense of what was in the hearts and minds of history’s participants, we are left with a dry ledger sheet of chronological events that lack context and humanity.

When the human component of history is coupled with the factual data, a more complete picture begins to emerge; one that demonstrates the common threads that connect the human family throughout the span of history.

Among those commonalities that are almost universally observed throughout human history are the tendency for men to seek to dominate others and the corresponding struggle for freedom throughout the ages.

One of the most difficult things faced by students of history is the tendency to judge figures of the past according to the standards of what we know today. This type of Monday-morning-quarterbacking is quite common in our age, but it assumes that if only those in the past had known what we know today, they would have made the same decisions we believe we would make.

This ignores the fact we enjoy the luxury of hindsight and have ample time to examine far more alternatives and accumulated wisdom than those whose actions we call into question.

Occasionally we ascribe attributes of evil and ignorance to their actions when, in reality, they were simply human beings doing the best they could under what were often difficult circumstances with the best understanding they had at the time. To assume that we could have or would have done better is arrogant at best. It also ignores the fact that at some point in the future, others will have the opportunity to examine our choices and to judge our actions with the same luxury of hindsight and greater wisdom than we currently possess.

If we hope to be given the benefit of the doubt for our mistakes, then we should be willing to likewise extend the privilege of being human, and therefore fallible, to those who preceded us. We should hope that future generations would use our successes and failures as valuable tools by which they can better discern what is sound and what is unsound.

Instead of passively expecting history to teach us “lessons,” it is incumbent upon each of us to set aside our favorite ideological filters and instead exert ourselves intellectually through careful study of the facts and a genuine effort to understand history through the eyes of those who have actually lived it.

Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bhyde@stgnews.com
Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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