An Education From History

Questions and eyebrows have often been raised concerning the study of history, and, in particular, whether the merits of historical knowledge and research have a role to play in contemporary and prospective affairs. A significant amount of historical debate has, thus, centered on what may or may not be learned from the study of the past and the lessons of history. If lessons can be learned, what implication does such knowledge have upon society and individual judgements? Moreover, what about our application of this acquired education? George Orwell wrote, ominously, “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.” Is history doomed to play out in an endless cycle of failure and repetition? Alternatively, can we use our perceptions of the past to help rationalize our actions and prevent disaster, negligence and mishap? Regardless of the academic discussion on historical study, which in itself suggests the past has relevance, historical consideration does appear to maintain an influential existence within our national and personal understanding of social and political issues. Spike Milligan once posed the poignant and philosophical question, “Is it because with the future unknown, the present traumatic, that we find the past so secure?” Spike may have been reflecting on past friendships and his wartime experiences, but he also appears to highlight a human instinct in which individuals often attempt to search for an understanding of the past in order to put current and prospective circumstances into some sort of context. On the other hand, it might be that, for some, the past provides a nostalgic and pleasurable retreat from everyday modern pressures, as seen in the plethora of re-enactment societies that have emerged over the years. Whatever the reasons for searching out what has occurred before, it seems that our past has always had an influence on our present lives, regardless of whether we know it or not.

History is peculiar in that, no matter how similar events may seem, previous episodes are never repeated under exactly the same circumstances. The consequences are different, making it difficult to judge a past event and rationalize it for present or future use. To look at an issue in the past and directly use its ‘format’ as a template for planning invites disaster as current discrimination, perceptions and circumstances are not taken into consideration. However, despite such complications, it is possible to judge history and then use this insight for current purposes. History can often provide warnings, and, therefore, guidance for contemporary and future actions. The Cuban Missile Crisis presents itself as an episode in which John F. Kennedy seemingly employed historical hindsight to his advantage. There is a suggestion that the failures of European politicians to avert WWII were insights that helped guide Kennedy in his bid to avoid nuclear Armageddon, namely by not ‘appeasing’ the potential aggressors. The implication is that the President of the United States wanted the world to know he had learned the lessons of history. In 2002, President George W. Bush tapped into his historical ‘education’ and decided to highlight previous historical events in order to help justify and instigate a western military conflict in the Middle East. Once again, the idea of appeasement was trotted out to justify the allies strategy of pre-emptive attack on those who were perceived as a threat to the world, or, more accurately, American interests. Adolf Hitler once claimed that, “A man who has no sense of history is like a man who has no ears or no eyes. He can live, of course, but what is that?” The Nazi dictator may have had a ‘certain’ understanding of the past, but it could be argued that he did not fully appreciate the lessons to be learned from history. Napoleon Bonaparte had set a notable precedent with his campaign to invade Russia nearly 130 years before the catastrophic German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

History does not just provide national leaders with selective and discriminating evidence to justify political actions.  Learning about history can also provide educational benefits at all levels of social development and caters for an instinctive human capacity for gathering information. There may well be some truth in the ‘philosophy’ that ‘ignorance is bliss,’ but faced with the potential of the human mind, and to not use it, would surely be forfeiting the very substance of the human experience itself. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that, “...enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Historical education provides us with knowledge of episodes and developments in the past, thus, helping us to develop skills in perception, research, communication, and enables us to understand such concepts as change and continuity. The results can be far-reaching and varied. The historian, John Tosh, points out that “a historical education achieves a number of goals at once: it trains the mind, enlarges the sympathies and provides a much needed perspective on some of the most pressing problems of our time.” In short, the study of history develops our ability to think constructively and with foresight. To disregard the benefits of historical education, as well as education in general, is paying no attention to the fine threads that hold our very existence together. As Cicero suggests, “to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain a child.” To gain insight and instruction from the past does not always have to entail detailed historical study of such notable events as the decline of the Roman Empire, ‘1066,’ the Reformation or the two World Wars; although they are important, history is what happened just yesterday or even ten minutes ago. However, ‘classic’ historical episodes and recent personal experiences all have equal value.  One could argue that they are intimately connected. Most of us will use our sense of personal history to provide a guide for our behavior and as an example for moral example, positive or negative.  Indeed, what is the basic premise for the study of history, if not the observation and recording of people and their actions?

Some of us will attempt to use historical characters as a role model for future endeavors; again, the choice may be for better or worse. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the majority of events from our histories are in the main, used in forms of entertainment, and for leisure. Away from the educational establishments, young children and many adults are frequently subjected to vivid representations of times gone by, whether by stories told or visually with pictures, television, or visits to historical sites and monuments. Even if history was to be finally judged to have no use or worth, Marc Bloch maintains that history’s “entertainment value would remain in its favor.” However, W. H. Auden advises that the politics of history is too ‘criminal and pathological’ a subject for young minds to digest and that, instead, children should find their ‘heroes and villains’ from fictional sources. Nevertheless, despite Auden’s view, in addition to an ever increasing number of television history programs, the range of historical books in many top ten seller lists suggests that we are quite happy to find our ‘heroes and villains’ from times gone by. Blockbuster movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Titanic and Gladiator, and their subsequent huge popularity, points to the fact that many of us still enjoy a fascination with the past, even if such movies are fraught with artistic license. In one sense, cinematic entertainment fulfills our need to understand and appreciate our past.  At the very least, as John Tosh suggests, we may seek gratification in the knowledge that our lives are less turbulent than those of the characters portrayed on celluloid. Television now appears more than ever to be producing programs of a historical nature, although some remain better than others in content. With the advent of cable and digital television, the choices available to those who wish to indulge in the nature of issues, events, and peoples from the annals of history has dramatically increased. A quick glance at many of the television listing schedules reveals programs of potential interest. For example, ‘Hitler’s Britain’ (Channel 5), ‘What the Stuarts Did For Us’ (BBC2), ‘The Gulf War’ (UK Horizons), ‘The Great War’ (BBC Four), ‘The Most Evil Men in History’ (Discovery), The Third Reich in Colour (History Channel), Stonehenge Rediscovered (National Geographic), and finally ‘Liberty! The American Revolution’ (UK History). Although the majority of such programs are often narratives, formatted for entertainment purposes and rarely feature any discussion on the nature of historical debate, the wide selection available arguably equates to demand. Therefore, this seems to indicate a relatively popular desire to seek out explanations and knowledge from bygone eras, perhaps even as an exercise in discovering who we are.

To know what we are and where we are from is one of life’s most instinctive roads of discovery. Tony Robinson, most famous for his portrayal of Baldrick in the television series Blackadder, and more recently as presenter of Time Team, asks, “How do you know who you are unless you know where you’ve come from? History isn’t just about the past. It’s about why we are who we are, and about what’s next.” Whether we choose to take the journey down history’s pathway to acquire the answers to such deductions and questions is another matter. Some of us may be content with the reality of modern day living without any obvious urge to explore the past. Many of us will actively choose to research academic history in an attempt to improve personal awareness and knowledgeable perspectives. However, exploration in a detailed manner is not always necessary in order to be influenced by our perceptions of what has occurred before. A society’s structure, cultural and nationalistic feelings, have all been fundamentally shaped and influenced by what has occurred in previous times, whether we realize it or not. However, misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the past can lead to conflicting interests. At best, the truth can be illuminating, allowing us to be forewarned, and forearmed, at worst, while fraudulence and deception can be abrasive and destructive to national, cultural and individual belief. Religious conflicts have been brutally fought on such a pretext providing lessons humanity just cannot seem to appreciate. For two hundred years, Crusaders and Muslims battled in horrific conditions amid mass slaughter and appalling conditions to be the side that controlled the holy city of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, what many would fail to realize is that, for the religions concerned,  Jerusalem was not a geographical place, but a historical framework inside the ‘hearts and minds’ of all those connected with the city; one doctrine could never administer the city. The warring parties never learned that such carnage was futile, and the continuing conflicts in the Middle East reflect the passions still involved. Indeed, warfare is one of the few areas in which we can state with unfortunate certainty what we have learned from history; namely, how best we can exterminate one another more ruthlessly and efficiently.

The past may, at times, provide obvious conclusions, but, more often than not, the lessons of history are subtler in their approach and appear to be a culmination of knowledge gathered over the passing years, resulting in a ‘whole’ body of information and resources that will enable a process of education to take place. Whether we use such education to make informed choices and decisions seems to be down to an individuals' psychology and social abilities. Ideally, history should fire the imaginations of both young and old alike. It is wise to consider how the past has influenced the present by studying the great and not so great societies that have gone before, including their politics, culture and religious beliefs. By doing so, it is possible to understand the diversity of the human experience and, therefore, comprehend ourselves as individuals and members of societies built upon historical foundations. The key to learning the right lessons of history, and, therefore, understanding the past, is in the gathering of knowledge and the provision of education. The famous 19th century historian, Leopold von Ranke, noted quite simply that the philosophy of history is “only to say, how it really is.” By exploring the reality of how history ‘really is’ requires the skills of research and the gathering of evidence in order to present an opinion, and, thus, argue in favor of that point of view. What we learn from the past, most notably our attitudes, knowledge and values, invariably affects the decisions and personal choices we make in the present and in the future. Consequently, we are utilizing the evidence of the past to inform and evaluate our perceptions of the world in which we live. Ultimately, such judgements might be used to facilitate change for better or worse, although it is, perhaps, ironic that future study of our present history will customarily provide an insight into the mistakes and pitfalls not so readily evident within our current timeframe.

We may not always heed the warnings from the past and learn the ‘lessons’.  However,  history should always be a subject used to encourage a search for understanding, to find the truth, to reason with conflict and destruction, and to enable us to develop into well-rounded individuals.  What we decide to take on board is greatly influenced by our individual loyalties, prejudices and our sense of cultural identity; what is ‘historical fact’ for one group of people can be ‘historical fiction’ to another. We must, therefore, be careful in our use of judgements and be aware of existing prejudices. The roads to self-fulfillment and the acquisition of knowledge often criss-cross paths already shaped by history’s unpredictable hand. Ultimately, it is our choice whether we follow the guidelines and take notice of the warning signs. By choosing to ignore what has gone on before and beating down unfamiliar routes, we may find ourselves destined to make the same mistakes again. New enterprises and experiences are worth chasing, but we can minimize the risks taken by treading carefully and respecting prior information. It is, perhaps, wise to note the warnings that seep through the past into the present. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote of the folly of dismissing the times of yore, “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.”