“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”
Aldous Huxley (1959)
Huxley hits the nail on the head.
So often as a student (and now graduate) of history have I been confronted with the notion that studying the past is a waste of time. Often is the case that this stance is bolstered by reasons that go something like: “it takes time away from learning how the world currently works”, “it happened so long ago”, or (a personal favourite) “it doesn’t have any practical use”.
But here’s the thing, none of those reasons are actually substantive downsides to learning from the past.
I’m not suggesting for a second that it doesn’t take a pinch more imagination to find the ‘practical’ value in history than subjects like dentistry or teaching. But, what I am saying is, scratch below the surface and you’ll find a lesson or two from history that applies to your everyday life – and I’d bet that it wouldn’t take long either.
Having an understanding of what happened, who it involved, and when it went down are all fundamental when grappling with the broader context. There’s no doubt that these are key parts of the puzzle in answering the much larger questions about how we’ve ended up where we are as a society, as a species, and as a planet.
But it isn’t necessarily the nitty-gritty history that I’m getting at here. It’s the principles infused during the historical thought process (by half-decent historians at least!) that I want to direct focus towards.
The point I want to make is that history gives us the opportunity to take a balanced look at the world through the eyes of others.
As a discipline, it allows us to apply different lenses to the diverse world we live in. Regardless of whether that chosen lens be gender, race, sexuality, family-life, disability, politics, government, media, economics, war, religion, science, institutions, philosophies, culture, ideologies – nothing is (nor should it be) excluded from observation, scrutiny, and critique.
By lending us a hand in making sense of days gone by, we are presented with the golden opportunity to reflect and improve on our own lives, and on our own everyday experience in the world. So in response to what one of the haters from earlier might have suggested, history absolutely does not detract from learning about how the world currently works – if anything it enhances it.
On top of that, it teaches us the value in using yesterday’s entangled problems to develop an open-minded and balanced approach when looking at today’s complex issues. Looking at things from more than one angle is an underrated ability, and is easily one of the greatest benefits of adopting a more broad-minded attitude.
The takeaway here is that it’s not a skill exclusively relied on only when studying history. In fact, it’s a skill applicable to most aspects of our lives. Take problem solving at work for example, making big life decisions, or even understanding where others are coming from in our day-to-day interactions – none of these are hindered by a level-head.
At its core history demonstrates how to practically use something we quite regularly fall short on in 21st century public discourse – and she goes by the name of ’empathy’. I encourage you to use her, but please don’t abuse her.