The Uses of History

Oct 5, 2008

Murray, KY – With yet another semester, I am left to wonder if the students in my history classes have gained anything at all from the experience. In my American history classes, we had covered a wide range of topics in the period before the Civil War. Of course I want my students to learn and remember certain facts of American history, but even more than that, I want them to become excited about the study of history itself. George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher and critic wrote that a country without a memory is a country of madmen. And I don't want my students to contribute to the lunacy of a world suffering from historical amnesia.

An amnesiac is unable to function, to live fully, and certainly those suffering from historical amnesia are no different. It is impossible to function, to live full satisfying lives if we are unable or unwilling to remember. Historian Ernest R. May put it this way: The general ability of American citizens to reason historically, that is to use experience effectively, is of the greatest importance of our present and future well being. Our survival in this era or any other depends on our ability to reason from experience. On that ability, more than anything else hangs our continued economic growth, our constitutional longevity, and our personal adjustments to change. May believes our very survival depends on our ability to reason historically. I try to convince my students that the study of history is just plain fun, but there's this more serious reason to study the past, our survival depends on it. According to May, the teaching of history in schools is a necessity rather than an expendable luxury, comparing particular situations is one of the standard ways we all use history, he writes. The one great opportunity to develop the habit of making such comparisons comes when people study history in school. History provides the appropriate analogies that establish the relevancy of the past and present.

In 1639 Thomas Fuller, another historian, wrote about the advantages gained by those who maintained a high regard for the past. In the language of his time, Fuller wrote about the advantages history affords to men, but his ideas have always applied to women as well. What a pity it is, he wrote, To see a proper gentleman to have such a crick in his neck that he cannot look backward. Yet, no better is he that he cannot see behind him, the actions that long since were performed. History maketh the young man to be old without even wrinkles or gray hairs, privileging him with the experience of age without either the infirmities or inconveniences thereof. Yea, it not only maketh things past - present, but enableth one to make a rational conjecture of things to come. For this world affordeth no new accidents. Old actions return again, furbished over with some new indifferent circumstances.

Oh, to be young again, we hear the middle aged or the elderly lament. But think of the experience and the memories that only age can bring. According to Fuller, the study of history gives us the benefits of the experience of age without either wrinkles or grey hairs; the experience of age, without the infirmities of age a very good thing indeed