Why History Matters
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 2, 2003
My friend thinks history is boring.
When teacher mentions that subject she starts groaning.
She hates listening about castles,
She rathers the battles.
She claps for the Vikings ‘cause she likes all
Her name is Claire but she doesn’t care
Any little bit about legends or myths
because she thinks history is boring.
Well, I’d bet that Claire isn’t alone. If you asked any given group of young people whether they thought history was boring, the response of most of them, no doubt, would be: “Yep.” “You betcha.”
Young people, nothing. Ask any group of full-grown adults their views of history, and I would wager that the results would be largely the same. I was going to conduct a survey here this morning about whether all ofyou felt that history was boring or not, but I decided not to. For one thing, you are-- we are-- after all, a very clever and intelligent—and quite unusual group here—so our results wouldn’t necessarily jibe with those of “people in general”…
For another thing, I kind of sense that many of you would want to humor me, so, knowing how much I like history, you wouldn’t want to make me feel bad by saying that you didn’t…
And finally (most importantly perhaps, for statistical purposes), most of the people who think that history is boring probably aren’t here this morning. They probably read the sermon topic for today, and said “History? Yuk! No way!” and decided to stay home!
So that leaves us, the hardboiled pro-history sorts—or, at least, those who are willing to consider the possibility that all history might not be so boring after all, and that it might, even, have some little relevance to the lives we lead today.
First of all, before we undertake our consideration of why history is important, we need to consider why so many people think that it isn’t. Why do so many people think that history is “boring”? Why does it have such a bad rap?
I think a lot of the problem has to do with the ways in which we’ve been taught history, most of us, down through the generations. Tell me: What can be more (yes)”boring” than the memorization of lots and lots of unrelated dates from out of the past—seemingly irrelevant details about the life of this or that dead guy (almost always a white dead guy; usually a rich or powerful dead guy, at that).
History, the way it was usually presented in school, was about stuff that had already happened, done by a bunch of dead people, who don’t care about us, and about whom we have no reason to care. Why even bother with history, then?
So, the fact of the matter was that most schools didn’t bother with history all that much. Requirements in most places have been pared down to the bone. History departments have often been merged with geography and the social sciences, so that even in “history” class, you might not get that much history per se. The study of history was looked upon as something of barely secondary importance.
History also is devalued in our society because, frankly, it doesn’t sell. Go into the children’s or young people’s department of one of the really large bookstores in the area (a place like Borders or Barnes and Noble) are check out the offerings in the area of history, and what will you find? Maybe a single shelf, with a mere handful of titles—amidst all those hundreds of thousands of books. You’ll find, perhaps, a few titles about African American History (with a couple of different books about Martin Luther King, Jr., probably). You’ll maybe find a book or two about the American Revolution; maybe a couple about the Civil War; there might even be a title or two about World War Two. Look at the section marked “Biographies” for young people and who do you find (besides Martin Luther King)? Mostly rock stars and sports figures (hardly underexposed groups elsewhere in our culture). I’m sorry, but there’s something wrong with a society that has space on its bookshelves for a biography of Justin Timberlake, but not for a look at the life of (say) Nelson Mandela or Eleanor Roosevelt!
It’s a devious Catch-22: Young people won’t become interested in history unless they’re exposed to interesting, well-written histories of important people and events. But these won’t sell (and that’s what determines shelf space, after all: what’s going to sell) because kids “aren’t interested” in history. And while I’ve known a number of people who have discovered the joys of history later in their lives, it’s certainly an easier process (not to mention a more meaningful one) if we can instill a lifelong love of history into children from an early age.
But why, other than to keep historians in business, is it important to study history at all? What’s in it for us—as individuals, as a society? How does history benefit our lives?
We are, of course, a society in love with instant gratification. We don’t want to wait for our meals to be prepared, so we’ve invented “fast food”. We don’t want to spend time waiting in line, so we have drive-in windows. We don’t want to have to wait to save up for something, so we charge it to the plastic, and worry about paying later. We get impatient if there’s more than one person in line ahead of us at the grocery store. Even though most of us didn’t have computers five or ten years ago—and couldn’t imagine the things we’d be able to do with them—now we think that our computers are “too slow”—we don’t want to wait for the modem to dial a ten digit number so we can get online—so we switch over to DSL or Broadband, so we can get onto the internet instantly.
We don’t like to wait. We want our food right now. We want answers right now. We want satisfaction right now. We expect our leaders to solve our problems, right now, in a flash—and if they give us anything less than instant answers (think of Jimmy Carter), we boot them out at the next election.
But history isn’t about instant answers. It’s about the slow and gradual process by which things happen; it’s about putting together the pieces of a puzzle, and making connections (or guessing where the connections might be). To people immersed in our hectic, all-in-a-flash, frenetic culture, that can seem as interesting sometimes as watching paint dry. And teaching history in school as a bunch of disjointed, irrelevant names and dates certainly doesn’t do anything to dissipate that impression.
If history is presented as the study of the past alone, it will never interest more than a select few (the way that any antiquarian study—whether it’s of old glassware or of old trading cards or of old military memorabilia-- interests only those with a particular curiosity in the subject at hand.) In order to engage people (of any age) history has to be shown as something we live right now, in our own time. We are all living history, so we are all historians. We are all inheritors of a garment of history whose origins extend far back before recorded time. History is our story (which is why it can’t be seen as only his-story, if women are to be included; or as only a white-story, if people of color are to be included; or as only a rich-man’s-story, if the rest of us who aren’t rich men are to be included).
As Gerda Lerner has written:
We did not create ourselves out of nothing; we in this generation did not weave the web of life. We are, rather, products of a long process of historical evolution; we are each products of a complex concoction of nature and nurture—influences, cultures, choices made by those who came before long before us. Whether we are interested observers of life or not—whether we say we care about history or not-- we are children of history nonetheless. History will have its way with us, whether we are engaged observers or not. But certainly, there are gifts to be gained by feeling ourselves active participants in the historical process.
First of all, history can provide any nation with humility. Some nations need humility more than others; ours (especially at this particular time in our history, and given the reckless and shortsighted policies of the administration currently in power) needs a megadose of humility.
No nations can claim to have it all together, to be the epitome of perfection, to have solved all its problems, resolved all of its contradictions, to be able to lord it over other countries and command what they should do. Any nation that clings to a policy of “my way or the highway” is heading down a dark and isolated dead end.
America is a great nation, and we have a magnificent history of power and glory—a historical dynamism which has unleashed awesome powers of creativity in the fields of invention and technology, in the arts and sciences. We enjoy awesome, precious personal freedom which allows this creativity to keep on flowing.
But if you think that the time has come for this country to rest on its laurels then it’s time to take a serious and sobering look at American history. Read about the trail of tears and the decimation of the native peoples upon which this land was founded. Read about the violence that has so often accompanied the development of this hard land. (Or, if you don’t want to read, go see the movie: The Gangs of New York, for example, even though it is much better cinema than history, will open your eyes to how much of the story of our country which we now take for granted was written in blood.) History reminds us of our past (and present) shortcomings—so it reminds us to stay humble.
But history also gives us hope. It reminds us of the heroism of a Dr. Martin Luther King (or of a simpler soul like Rosa Parks). It reminds us of the numberless men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit who labored to make the world a better place. It helps us to rejoice that at least some of their hopes—some of their dreams—have borne fruit.
History also is about interdependence and interconnectedness. When you study history, it’s easy sometimes to lose track of the forest amidst all those trees: myriad facts and figures; sources and counter-sources; quotations, citations, annotations. But one thing this load of historical date reminds us is that life is complicated. There’s seldom a simple pathway from Point A to Point B, with easily identifiable motivations, and readily predictable effects. Rather, the different strands of history all flow together; they cross each other at different points; connect, become severed, only to connect again.
The study of history provides no simple and easy answers for the problems of today. But our historical discernment can allow us to shed some light on the complexities of our world, as we struggle to find just and peaceful answers. The study of history calls us away from easy answers and often-tragic response of taking action for the sake of action alone. History will not forgive a cowardly indecision or appeasement of tyrants (like, say, Munich). But it also reminds us to be rational, and cautious, and not to sacrifice our better selves for the quick fix of a “feel good” solution.
History also is about the story—my story, your story, our common human story. Each of us lives an epic upon this Earth—a living drama, sometimes a tragedy, more often than we realize, perhaps, a divine comedy—rich enough in any of our lives to rival Shakespeare. Remembering our history—remembering that each of our stories is part of the great sweep of history—reminds us of how powerful (and how important) each of our lives is. It reminds us not to give away our power, then, but to claim it, to own it, to take our stand and make our music in the great symphony of life.
In words with which I can certainly identify, Gerda Lerner writes:
Our lives—small and insignificant as they might be—are not “trivial matters”—and the study of history—our history—reminds us of that.
History also is about time—time, in its greatness and in its smallness. The study of history reminds us of the timeless web of which we are part. Our own lives may be short—but three score and ten, maybe a little more; they are but a tiny glimmer of light between two vast eternities. But history reminds us that we are part of that eternity. We will die, all of us; but the greater life of which we are all part will go on and on, eternally.
History also is about the littleness of our own time—the temporal nature of our days upon the Earth. It reminds us that we do not act for ourselves alone, but for generations that will come after us. It also gives us hope that, whatever our failings and those of the men who now lead us, new generations will arise to take our place at the front of the line—and that—who knows?—they may be able yet to redeem some of our unrealized visions.
History is also about order. It’s about making sense of those disparate threads out of which the garment of time is woven. It’s also about options; about finding again some of those “more excellent ways” for solving our human dilemmas upon this Earth.
History is about role models. That’s one of my favorite parts of the study of history: bing introduced to all of these kindred spirits of the past and present who speak to my soul; discovering those heroic men and women who make us proud to be human beings. The example of a Nelson Mandela shows us how it is possible to live a full and powerful life, even under the most severe oppression. The example of a Susan B. Anthony shows us that being marginalized by society doesn’t mean we need to deny our worth or dignity as human beings. The vivid role models that history presents gives us timeless models of how to be human—and how to stay human—at times of great challenge.
Finally, history is the encapsulation of our humanity’s deepest yearning. It is our eternal, immortal “Yes!” to life, in the face of whatever darkness and despair the moment in which we are alive might present.
As Longfellow wrote:
History matters because it reminds us that we have a debt to the past which needs repaying, and an obligation to the future, in whose name our actions will finally be redeemed. History is important because it reminds us that we are important, each of us—and that we need to remain engaged—in our hearts and hands and minds—as we leave together our own footprints on the sands of these times in which we live.