Ever and always, like it or not
Anyone who's read this blog for any length of time knows that I'm a history addict in the worst kind of ways. In fact, along with politics, it's one of my main interests.
That's also a bit of disclaimer for what I'm about to say. Because it seems that history all too often gets short shrift from would-be futurists. That's a shame because, like politics, one doesn't have to be an addict to see that some level of engagement is necessary.
What follows are five simple reasons that history, in all its varieties, is a key to grasping the world around us, and how it may unfold tomorrow.
An appreciation of complexity
So the nascent feminists are fighting for the Cherokee, the Cherokee have black slaves, the black slaves are joining the Seminoles to fight Jackson in Florida, the black freemen are fighting with Jackson against the English. — Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing on the antebellum era
One cannot honestly study history without gaining a greater understanding of how truly complex the world is, as Coates' quote above demonstrates.
Reading multiple histories gives one an appreciation of the interwoven yet conflicting stories, motives and cultures that have driven humanity since the opposable thumb. That understanding, carried over from the page into our current world, cannot help but make us better able to grasp what goes on around us. It also brings us to another advantage...
History is the enemy of dogma
“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.” — Jacques Barzun
Better understanding how human events played out before — in all their complexity — tends to make it harder to believe a single, dogmatic version of events. Notably, one of the first acts of tyrants is to scrub and rewrite entire swaths of history and exile those who contradict the official line.
This doesn't mean that cynicism necessarily overwhelms idealism. Coates' point in the quote above, for example, isn't that feminism or the rights of minorities were less important because some of their proponents engaged in (to us) seemingly contradicting actions but rather that those contradictions must be understood because it dispels convenient illusions about the past. Knowing that minority Americans, for example, fought on different sides of different conflicts, for different reasons leads to viewing another part of humanity as well, human, instead of a monolithic "they."
History, at its best, argues and disagrees with itself but does not rest in turning over new stories and forgotten facts.
History is the enemy of stainless causes, perfect leaders and unquestionable creeds; a vaccine against the dangerously, hatefully simplified.
This is important because...
Santayana was right
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." — George Santayana
Overquoted, perhaps, but completely, totally right. History reveals trends in societies and human behavior. It allows us to use these to assess events in our own time, to better
Observing, for example, Government 2.0, it is important to know about previous upper and upper-middle class reformist movements — like the early Progressives or the Best and Brightest — that have sought to bring "modern efficiency" — especially technology — to government and how those pushes succeeded or failed.
For those of us seeking to make tomorrow just a little better than today, this is absolutely essential. Forewarned can be forearmed, if we let it. Knowing history allows us to see what's evolving around us with new eyes and judge accordingly.
Speaking of new eyes...
The original augmented reality
History is reading all that you can as fast as you can and - remembering as much as you can. — Lynn Berleffi Darr
Yes, while people are salivating over the possibility of shades that can tell them any number of snazzy things about their surroundings, some books and conversations can already provide a similar level of understanding.
See that road there? That used to be black neighborhoods until they were deemed "blighted" and demolished in the "urban renewal" of the 1970s. Knowing history provides that context, allows us to see not just the world around us, but how it came to be, and why.
It doesn't just extend to our physical surroundings either. Listening to someone speak, history allows humans to pick apart the memes, the enduring themes in their words and background, it reveals the story behind the story.
It does all of this without the need for any machinery more complicated than memory, and little possibility of being run over by a truck. History puts us in a place, physical and mental, and broadens our view beyond simply "I am a thing of flesh, going about my life."
That's important because it begets something else...
Today is not the only world
"History teaches everything, including the future." — Lamartine
But many would like to think that it is. It is the conceit of every society, even with a shred of historical knowledge, that its spot is destined, fixed and that no one or nothing has been here before.
Looking at history, we can see the ruins of old prejudices (and defeated dreams too, for that matter), we can see that there is nothing inevitable about today. We can remember invincible armies destroyed overnight and small ideas that prove surprisingly tenacious.
History is there to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that things can change, that the world around us can become far better — or much worse. Finally, it reminds that, either way, it is us — the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race — that makes it so.