I have often come across an alarming and unfortunate sentiment in the course of various conversations with my peers. The topic of history, with all its apparent tediousness and bland factual rigidity, is commonly dismissed on those very grounds. Perhaps a noncommittal acknowledgement of the occasional value of studying it is briefly conceded, but this is typically followed with an immediate comment on the dryness of the textbooks that have been the vehicle of historical facts to their minds. To be fair, this is an entirely understandable conclusion to be reached; considering the common methods of teaching history utilized by textbook driven curriculum, one cannot escape the inherent lack of liveliness found within those pages. In a typical history textbook – especially those addressing it from a birds-eye perspective spanning many centuries – the events purported to be civilization shaping are represented in a light tremendously incommensurate with their nature. So and so invaded such and such. This guy killed that guy and stole his wife and kingdom, and so on and so forth. Granted, this is of course a necessary constraint; if not adhered to, the simplest of historical events would fill an entire volume. So for the sake of space and efficiency, inconceivably complex circumstances and events are distilled to a few sentences. As a result of this divorce from their wider context, they therefore lose almost all momentum in the minds of the readers. Most likely there is a gradual disillusionment as a result of this representation. Our minds and hearts instinctively know that these events we are reading about entail so much more than the few paltry sentences they were afforded. The account of a political revolution rightly should bring with it a large dose of intrigue, heartbreak, bravery and cowardice, action and confusion, and the intertwining of countless human stories. This is impossible to fully replicate and represent through the medium available to a history curriculum. Consequently, when exposed to enough of what are supposed to be earth shattering historical accounts via language that couldn’t shatter a window pane, many begin to rebel against it altogether.
Unfortunately, the opposing camp – one which affirms the importance and relevance of history – often does not fair too well in attempts to preserve a reverence for it. Many who hold to this view have rightly ascertained the exodus that is taking place from the ranks of historical literacy and appreciation, and nobly seek to stem the tide by whatever means available. However, their ace which is most often produced in this endeavor drastically underperforms. This ace is, of course, the appeal to the many lessons which can be found in the annals of history. While this is a legitimate and well meaning strategy – and to be fair, an excellent starting point – it cannot stand on its own. It does not possess the necessary magnetic characteristics for reorienting an entire generation of young people towards a proper engagement with history, for it misunderstands the actual reason for their dismissal of it in the first place. The widespread apathetic demeanor towards history is derived more from a lack of familiarity with its richness than a failure to understand that it contains a variety of lessons. From the skeptical vantage point, plenty of lessons are available through typical life experiences. Why crane our necks back countless centuries to peer at archaic civilizations or outdated modes of society?
Considering this, the focus should be trained on the necessity of demonstrating that history is far more than an assortment of various lessons, but that in actuality it is a living and vibrant tapestry of interwoven human experiences preserved for the enrichment of posterity. This common element of humanity being the cord that binds the entirety of history together, even the deepest and farthest recesses of it are instantly accessible to any of its students. Approached in this manner, the process of interacting with it begins to expand into something more than reading words on a page or watching black and white footage. The more the student of history is exposed to the billions of human stories contained within it, the deeper they become entwined in them personally. They begin to look less like a student, and more like an ongoing participant. Their immersion in accounts of political turmoil, scientific upheaval, the boyhood of George Washington and the Crusades, all effect an unparalleled and tangible shift in their outlook and perspectives. The stories animate their imagination and inform their navigation through the challenges of everyday life.
The other side of this coin – one which is decidedly more sober – is just as important to note. The true tragedy summed up within the old adage “those who do not know history are bound to repeat it” is not merely that mistakes will continue to be made if we don’t learn our lessons. Instead, at a more fundamental level, the myriad instances of suffering, confusion, sadness and pain which result from those mistakes are what infuse that expression with substantial weight. They are not simply historical instances of unfortunate decisions that could have been made in a more efficient manner, but rather the jarring of human experience towards a trajectory it was never meant to travel. An avoidance of these tragic circumstances – because of the havoc they wreak on human victims – should be our motivation to derive insight from the past. Lessons are not learned for their own sake, but for the benefit of the people learning them.
It is most likely that those who primarily lean on history’s plethora of lessons in attempts to promote it have this deeper understanding in mind as well. I do not doubt that in the least, but am merely stressing the importance of actually appealing to the true wealth it has to offer in order to capture the imagination of those who are disinterested. History is something that we must fall in love with, not merely learn about. And just as deep love for another person is not cultivated without countless moments spent in their presence, so too is the love for our past cultivated. In order to inspire this significant commitment of time and effort, the ultimate rewards should be represented by its adherents in a light which does it justice. We cannot expect those who care little for history to fall in love with it unless every syllable spoken on its behalf is animated with our own love for it. Proposing merely the prospect of lessons learned cannot accomplish this inspiration we are seeking to engender.
This endeavor is naturally no easy task. There are undoubtedly as many proposals to accomplish it as there are students of history. Regardless of this endless variety of possible paths, perhaps we might all agree that a widespread re-enchantment with history from all corridors of society is our aim. Only when that has begun to gain momentum will we begin to see a movement towards a common affinity for historical immersion.
A shift of this scope is something that can only be effected and realized from a grass roots level. Grade school history education and collegiate training cannot suffice in producing such an expansive effect; the only environment rich enough in which to plant those seeds and hope for satisfactory results is the realm of simple conversation. That persistent little human exchange hiding behind the scenes which has torn down empires and erected new ones in their place, started movements and revolutions, guided the currents of ideas and innovation and awakened the adventurous spirit for millennia is the only viable resource to accomplish our desired outcome. The wonderful potency of conversation has always been crucial in forging the bonds of human fellowship, which in turn has produced the very historical occurrences we are interacting with. As a result, it naturally performs wonderfully in preserving the record of those very instances. In essence, the very thing which has driven history itself can be the only thing which maintains its relevance in the minds of a new generation, while simultaneously capturing the hearts of all those who hear of it. History is full of people who have been preoccupied with discussing it, perhaps we should continue the trend.
This is a vital starting point; the prospect of success becomes instantly more attainable once this simple method is understood. To be fair, the challenge lies in implementing it on a larger scale. And yet to its advantage, no widespread government intervention or large financial investment is necessary, just the simple organic ingredient of people talking amongst themselves with a common orientation towards the treasures of the past. These conversations can pique curiosity and provide just the right spark for a hunger to become acquainted with those who have gone before us. They also serve as a context in which to hold up the virtues and vices of the figures populating the landscape of prior human experience, ideally leading to a cultivation of properly balanced character in the young listeners who will be the leaders of tomorrow.
These conversations also provide an excellent opportunity to dispel the conception of history as a narrowly focused discipline. It is seldom recognized as having the uniquely all-inclusive nature that it possesses: within its borders reside every possible discipline and topic ever pursued by mankind. Other categories of thought (i.e. science, philosophy, mathematics) undoubtedly interweave elements of their cousins, but history alone can lay claim to this monopoly of disciplines. By its nature, it includes quite literally everything that has transpired – any arena of study owes its preservation and improvement to the accumulation of history. The complex corridors found within it provide access to a richer understanding of any topic imaginable.
With all this in mind, the ever expanding adventurous joy of experiencing the depths of our story as a human race lies before us. The capacity to shape the future towards a worthwhile direction is significantly dependent on a constant engagement with and rediscovery of the traditions and foundations entrusted to us. There is no greater tragedy than a collective amnesia towards all that has shaped us into who we are, and no nobler cause than the preservation and ultimately a continuation of those roots.
Finally, let us never forget that history is captivating and inspiring because we are shaping it every moment, just as our forebears were.