Photo: Carla DeSantis
A couple of weeks ago, my daughter came home with a less-than-stellar grade on her history test. When I asked about it, her reply came as a shock to me: “Why do we even need to learn history? We need to look to the future instead of the past.”
Now, I am all for forward thinking, but as someone who has spent most of her life thinking and learning about what past cultures have done, thought, and written – mainly in the context of language and literature – and how this has impacted and influenced modern thought, language, and literature, I had to stop and really think about what her reply means.
Is my daughter’s view indicative of this new generation? Are we failing to impart the importance of history in school and in the family setting? I began to worry and plan a “history intervention.”
My daughter’s comment happened to come upon the heels of the abominable and tragic mass murder of Jews targeted in their Pittsburgh synagogue. So, while I had my 13-year-old trapped in the car on the way to school, I took the opportunity to explain how the oppression and persecution of Jews throughout history – from Ancient Egypt to the Holocaust and even now – provide a sobering context for this atrocity, a context that underlines the enormity of present-day anti-Semiticism.
And perhaps that is one of the most important factors in learning history: it provides context for humankind and helps us to understand where we have been, where we are, and where we may be going. How are we to understand who we are as a people without knowing where we have been and what we have done? We all know the commonplace – and I believe, true – notion of being able to learn from history, but here are a few other thoughts in defence of history.
1. Family Identity
Starting at a small, nuclear level, let’s talk about family “history.” We are not created in a bubble; the people around us – our family – help to make us who we are. Our family helps to give us a sense of “identity.” And not just our immediate family, but those who came before us as well. Values, culture, tradition provide a grounding of self that cannot be underestimated.
A sense of family history can also provide a source of empathy. For example, my grandparents came as immigrants from Italy to the New World with little more than the clothes on their backs. They believed in the “American dream,” and in many ways were successful in achieving it. My daughter accompanied me to Ellis Island, where we found my grandparents’ names etched in the American immigrant wall of honour, a monument to those who had arrived there during the great waves of early 20th-century immigration. She sat with her brothers on the doorstep of the house in Calabria that her great-grandfather had built and where her grandmother grew up. I am hoping that she will realize that this is her personal history.
My children have reaped the advantages of their great-grandparents’ sacrifices and should live life with the appreciation (I hope) that others have paved the way for them, similar to what the wise Maya Angelou expressed: “I'm grateful to those who went before me so that I can do what I'm supposed to do for those who are yet to come.” When dealing with new immigrants in their own lives, I would hope that my children will have a strong sense of empathy, remembering that they themselves descend from immigrants.
This is not to say at all that family history should define someone; however, understanding one’s family story – that is, history or “context” – may provide an informed foundation from which to move forward.
2. National Identity
My daughter is growing up in Canada, a country that shares not only the longest international border with the USA but also many cultural similarities. Despite these similarities, however, the differences are significant enough to make Canada a country very distinct from the USA.
Only by learning Canadian history will she be able to appreciate the cultural duality of Anglo-Franco Canada, which surrounds her every day in her French lessons taught in public school and the bilingual packaging on everything we buy. Only by learning Canadian history will she be able to have true empathy for what the First Nations people have endured in this country. Only by studying Canadian history will she gain a true understanding of why Canada has always been distinct from its US neighbour – its founding first by the French, its strong links to the British Crown, the lack of a constitutional right to bear arms – thus fostering and promoting national identity and values.
3. Universality of People
What makes a literary work a classic and why? Why do we continue to read Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dickens? And why do these writers from another age continue to make modern readers weep, laugh, and recognize themselves and those around them within the pages? Because such classic writers get to the very essence of human nature, which is universal throughout the ages. Change the clothing, the language, the surroundings – but the basic themes persist.
Here is what Ralph Waldo Emerson had to say about this notion of the commonality of humankind:
There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent. … Of the works of this mind history is the record. (Essays: First Series)
Machiavelli proposed a similar concept in The Prince:
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
If we accept the notion that the basic human passions, fears, hopes, values, emotions, and needs are timeless, then how can we not look to those who came before us for guidance? As American writer and poet Robert Penn Warren said, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
Part of the Continuum
As a professional editor, I continue to work on many books that deal with history – sometimes very far in the past – and I always appreciate the value that these authors are bringing to the world in preserving the story of humanity. And I always have much to take away from that reading for my own life and understanding, whether it be learning about the ancient notions of peace in Islam and how they link to ethics today, or the 16th-century religious controversies that fostered the variations we see in Christian churches today.
And so, my dear daughter, if we are to play our own – however tiny – part in the history of the world, we must be able to properly acknowledge those who came before us, do our best to understand them, and, by acknowledging that we are all part of the same humanity, see ourselves as part of the historical continuum – not as boats adrift without an anchor. Whatever we presently have has been built on those who have gone before us, and we take our place in this world and add our contributions within this context. Yes, let’s look and move forward, but with the knowledge of where we have been.
What are your ideas about the value of history? Has learning history enriched your life in any way? Do you think that there should be less emphasis or more emphasis on history in public education?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.