“Those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it.” “The past is always a rebuke to the present.” “History teaches everything, including the future.” “If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”
Those quotes are from, among others, Robert Penn Warren and Aristotle. There seems to be a general consensus among most great thinkers of the past few thousand years that history may be the single most important subject one can study. History leaves its mark on all other disciplines from languages to science to mathematics. And yet most human beings seem to have a genetic predisposition to ignore history. Thomas Edison is usually credited with inventing the light bulb, but as my article entails that is a lie. The light bulb was around for fifty years before Edison got to it. What Edison did-or rather his French assistant who actually figured things out-was waste years conducting experiments that had already been proven failures by other scientists. If Thomas Edison had been nearly as interested in learning about the past as he was in making sure the future bought into his myth, he could have had time to steal the ideas of countless other assistants. Of course, the most egregious example of the desire to ignore the history books is the Bush administration. This wretched hive of scum and villainy should have their hands cut off with a light saber for their across-the-board refusal to use them to open any of the history books that I feel sure must be in some library within the White House. If the Bush administration can be said to have produced one positive result-and that is certainly the best they can hope for-it is that they have forever illustrated the vital importance of teaching kids history. The years since Bush took office have been a textbook case for showing that an ignorance of history combined with a studious urge to ignore it can result in utter devastation. Anybody who resolutely refuses to learn history succeeds only in creating avoidable problems for themselves down the road.
The seemingly endless war in Iraq could have been avoided had the architects merely read a history book. It is fashionable to compare Iraq to Vietnam, but in reality the lessons that could have been used to avoid this mess can be found in more recent history. In fact, nearly every failure that has been experienced in Iraq could have been predicted with far greater accuracy than anything Nostradamus ever came up with simply by flipping through a history book until you come to post-Marshall Tito Yugoslavia. The situation in Iraq following the flight of the glue that had held it together is so remarkably similar to that which befell the Balkans after the death of Marshall Tito as to be nearly a perfect replication. Yugoslavia was, like Iraq, a nation built on an enforced coalition of ethnic factions that viewed one another with a ruthless suspicion and distrust. These factions were held together as a functioning unit only through the actions of a ruthless despot. When Tito passed on there was no one as strong to take his place and the country collapsed into a civil war that claimed millions of lives. Iraq was in exactly the same kind of situation under Saddam Hussein. Had someone inside the White House took merely the step of logging on to Wikipedia and looking up Yugoslavia, history as we know it might well be different. At this point, Pres. Bush’s defining scandal might well be illegal spying or lack of leadership during Hurricane Katrina. Heck, his approval ratings might even be in the high 30s. Even better, 3500 Americans might still be alive and there would be no Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq and maybe-just maybe-Osama Bin Laden might be in custody. (438 billion dollars surely seems like more than enough to spend to capture one guy hiding in a cave, don’t you think?)
Learning history does more than just keep one from making the same mistakes as their ancestors, however. History has a way of making one’s life better by instilling a sense of awareness. As the saying goes, you can’t know where you are unless you know where you’ve been. History can give you a definition of your place in the world as well as make people say you should try out for Jeopardy. Most of the time people laugh at you for making a stupid comment it is because your comment reveals of a lack of common knowledge. As just one mild example, let’s say you are among a group of people who are discussing movies and you mention that The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s best movie. After the laughter finally dies down ten minutes later someone asks if you are familiar with Raging Bull. Another mentions Goodfellas. A few others pipe in with Taxi Driver or Mean Streets or The King of Comedy. You are forced to admit you haven’t seen them, but you have seen The Aviator, and Gangs of New York. The laughter over your observation that The Departed represents Scorsese’s finest achievement is based on your ignorance of history. To take this to a more serious level, let’s say that you observe that Islam has been responsible for more violence than any other religion. You are then forced to admit your ignorance of the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts, and the killing of Jews during the Black Plague because it was thought by Christians that they were responsible. Not knowing ancient history can lead you to make some ridiculous claims, but not knowing recent history can lead people to question your very intellect, such as when Mitt Romney recently asserted that the Iraq war would not be taking place today had there only been weapons inspectors inside Iraq who were telling Bush they had found no evidence of WMDs. They were there and they did tell him that. Romney now looks like a complete moron despite the weak rationalization and explanations of his supporters.
History is kind of like The Force: it binds everything else together. Whether you intend to pursue a career in computers or acting or carpentry if you don’t the history of your subject you may soon be committing an entire series of mistakes already made and corrected by others. It is an absolute crime and we are doing ourselves no great service by de-emphasizing history in the classroom and focusing instead on ridiculous standardized achievement tests. Learning grammar and composition or algebra and calculus is useless if you waste most of your time repeating mistakes made in the past. It does no one any good to learn how to write a literary analysis if you aren’t familiar with the history that produced that work of literature. All human knowledge is learned through trial and error. If we can produce a generation or two of students who are intensely aware of history, chances are we can reduce the number of errors. By accomplishing this, we also greatly enhance the odds of reducing the monumental amount of time that is wasted on the unnecessary repetition of previously attempted trials. History is far more than just a dry rendering of facts in a boring textbook delivered by an unengaged teacher. History is the justification of our belief that we really have learned something of value. To say it is so unimportant that it can be dropped from classroom curriculum or relegated to just a few grades is to admit that, in actuality, we really haven’t learned anything of value.