On the Necessity of Studying History

What is “history”?

  • History can cover all aspects of human society. It is not just about wars and politics. Thisstudy of change over time covers all aspects of the human social condition. It takes in economics, sociology, culture, religion, philosophy, science, medicine, geography, climate, military, archeology, technology, education, sport and on and on. It’s about how humans survived their environment. It’s about their inventions, and experiences, and learnings (both formal and practical), their socializing, and relationships through friendships, marriages, progeny that allows the human condition to survive, and prosper.
  • History is the memory of the past experience of human affairs as it has been preserved largely in written records. While this captures much, there can be more. Even in the absence of a written record, information can be recovered by studying oral records, painting, drawings, carvings, and other artifacts.
  • History is all about stories. The stories we tell ourselves about the past allow us to examine ideas and see the country or the event we want. It’s also about who tells these stories and how they are told. Do they have an agenda; is there a political, cultural or gender bias?
  • The academic discipline of the study of history uses narrative to describe, examine, question, and analyze past events, and investigate their patterns of cause and effect and significance, and what narrative best explains an event – all supported by verifiable evidence.

Why history is important to study

  • History gives us context – and power and, importantly, involvement. Historical knowledge gives us roots: a context for our existence. Individuals who lack that context, lack a significant element of self-understanding but also an understanding of their relationship with the rest of society. As President Biden said in his February 7, 2023 State of the Union Address “We are not bystanders of history.” Along with this appreciation of context comes an ability to interrogate evidence. Powerless people become easy targets for exploitation, propagandizing and manipulation, particularly by those who appear to offer a membership to a group or cause. Historical knowledge is power. This is a good thing to remember as we attempt, say in Canada, to integrate the lives and incidents involving such important areas as the histories of Indigenous people, non-European immigrants and women.
  1. It allows us, forces us, to be critical thinkers. In the age of “fake news” engaged citizens need to be culturally literate, critical thinkers. It makes sure we don’t tell a story starting in the middle, as we need to know the history to understand how we got here. It provides nuance in this oversimplified era of brief sound bites (and 280 characters in the text content of a Tweet). There is the risk of creating an oversimplified narrative, the kind that, as historian Margaret MacMillan says in her The Uses and Abuses of History, “flattens out the complexity of human experience and leaves no room for different interpretations of the past.” In that critique, history can tempt us to move in confusing ways. 

A professor I was reading recently described a number of scenarios that differed from the conventional view of certain historical events and said it underlines “how history is polysemous”. I had to look up the word, but it’s quite a simple concept really – that something could have many meanings, i.e. that history is a grab bag from which each advocate pulls out a lesson to advance an agenda. So back to being a critical thinker and test for meaning and perspective.

  1. It allows us to learn. Regarding whether Putin would still have gone ahead with his “special military operation” if he had known how it would turn out, Hu We, a political scholar based in Shanghai, has said “History does not entertain ‘what ifs,’ and what is lost can never be regained. We can only learn from the lessons, try our best to not cling obstinately to our course and to never repeat past mistakes. What is the most tragic is to witness a nation that does not remember its past mistakes.” So it’s important to remember that famous saying by the philosopher,  George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We should learn not to be tempted by a sort of amnesia that it is not, in the words of Yogi Berra, “déjà view all over again”.
  1. It engages in important debate regarding historical continuity. Currently there is a lively and important disagreement whether the past is a good guide to our future. Some historians, such as Niall Ferguson, argue that “every generation thinks the world is falling apart, but then ultimately pulls through.” Others, such as Thomas Homer-Dixon disagree and say the “past isn’t a good guide to our present and future. Too many basic parameters – such as the energy imbalance at Earth’s surface – have changed. At the same time, we’re seeing new, deep links among crises that include synchronizing dynamics. The simple extrapolation of past trends doesn’t work any more.” As observers, we can follow and learn from the debate.
  1. It helps us focus on who tells the story. This is important as it helps determine political, cultural and gender influence and the potential for bias. As history is about stories, the validity and background of the raconteur is important.
  1. It can enable our institutions to develop adequate responses to external challenges. As the author Trilby Kent said in a Globe & Mail Opinion piece Oct 22, 2022 “In an era of environmental change, rising inequality, and seismic shifts in the international political arena, we need to understand how our institutions have developed in order to understand why they don’t always have adequate responses to these crises. History gives us this power. No other subject helps us understand so comprehensively what it is to be human.”
  1. It helps in making sense of the daily news. Having a historical sense helps make sense of the often complex events, issues, relationships and patterns that bombard us daily. As we read, hear or view the news we should be able to place the events in context.
  1. History can remind us to be surprised – and that the recent state of things is unlikely to last. Looking forward, many things cannot and will not be predicted. History will continue to surprise. The accelerated deindustrialization of North America, Europe and Japan, and the shift to manufacturing to Asia and China in particular is one such example. There are so many.
  1. Digging into history can provide what has been captured as a record. This is, however, not always a current record. History has the practical difficulty of distance in time from the event, thus not having ready access to sources close to the event, e.g. often the first records describing events were written several centuries after the fact, and may well have been coloured by the contemporary experiences of the chronicler. (Examples abound, like the use of gunpowder in warfare.)
  1. History helps us become familiar with one another, which should help in growing together as opposed to the dangers of being apart. As historian Arnold Toynbee said in his A Study of History, “Mankind has not yet been united politically, and we are still strangers to each other in our local ways of life, which we have inherited from the times before the recent ‘annihilation of distance’. This is a terribly dangerous situation. The two World Wars and the present worldwide anxiety, frustration, tension, and violence tell the tale. Mankind is surely going to destroy itself unless it succeeds in growing together into something like a single family. For this we must become familiar with each other, and this means become familiar with each others history, since Man does not live just in the immediate present.” This was written in 1972; 50 years of somewhat anxious history has since passed, and his words and the hope behind them, while somewhat Panglossian, seem relevant.
  1. History means curiosity: as human we should be curious about our past. Toynbee argues for studying history simply because we should be moved by curiosity. As he says, curiosity is one of the distinctive faculties of human nature. 
  1. History makes us search for truth, for accuracy. The teaching and study of history becomes an opportunity to demonstrate how history must be told truthfully and accurately. Part of this is the search for evidence from primary sources and experts, not just websites and Twitter. Being critical consumers of social media is one desired outcome. The historian Will Durant said: “most of history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”. A corollary can be… 
  1. History can also provide a rebalancing of truth from the game of PR fiction or political intrigue or simply issues that governments feel the need to keep secret. “History is the best teacher, but its lessons are not on the surface,” observed Kenneth Thompson, an international-relations scholar. There is the question of what’s propaganda or truth. One example of many is Napoleon Bonaparte, who was not only a warrior but also a shrewd propagandist. (He is commonly given attribution to the quote “History is a set of lies agreed upon” although it’s likely just a paraphrase of his general attitude.) During his first campaign in Italy, he carefully crafted reports from the battlefield, designed to increase his glory while masking the ruthlessness with which he plundered the country. He even created his own newspapers which exalt his victories. Bonaparte himself actually writes some articles. He himself wrote: “Bonaparte flies like lightning and strikes like a thunderbolt.”

An example of point #13: There are many examples of historians digging into once classified documents or long lost letters, or whatever, to present an alternative view of past events. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a frightening example of how this unpacking through the opening of secret files and recordings can instruct us on the future. With the opening of the Soviet archives and the declassification of hours of audio recordings made in the White House (both in the 1990s) the tale unfolds differently and more terrifyingly than what the public was provided at the time it was all happening. 

Sheldon Stern, historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library from 1977 to 1999 listened to these recordings and wrote a book: “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory”. He points out that American intelligence grossly underestimated the Soviet military presence in Cuba and didn’t know Soviet field commanders had tactical nuclear weapons with permission to fire on an invading army. A rogue captain at sea nearly launched missiles. Kennedy did not authorize a full-scale attack on Cuba or on the Soviet ships and submarines approaching the island, even though he was told that he was risking the defeat and destruction of the US. It illustrates the degree to which the difference between catastrophe and peace often comes down not to considered strategies but to pure chance.

We know that advisors around John F. Kennedy were misguided and too confidant. Khrushchev considered the missiles defensive. After all, the Americans had nuclear missiles in Turkey, so Khrushchev thought he was maintaining the balance of fear. Kennedy saved the day by trying to understand the reality of the nuclear gamble that was unfolding; he made a deal with Khrushchev to remove the American missiles in Turkey for the Soviet removal of their Cuban missiles. This was a secret for years. His decision spared the world a war that almost certainly would have involved nuclear weapons. 

The underlying message from this was that no one wins with nuclear weapons, and Kennedy “was the only person…who genuinely understood that nuclear war could never be a viable or rational choice.” It’s one that should be noted today. All this is important. It advises how the future can be handled. If we common citizens think the press is providing all we need on a given issue, then we are being very naive. If this is true of a society where there is an active and free pass, think what is available in a society not so fortunate.

Why I chose to tackle this subject:

  1. It is simply extremely interesting. Reading about and studying the dynamics of what has gone on in the past is fascinating.
  1. It is a help in understanding the world I live in now, but also an attempt to ponder the future. Unearthing the themes and patterns in world affairs forces this on one. 
  1. It assists in the writing I do, the labelling of my photos, and the completing of my diaries in explaining what I have seen and feel. Because I am reasonably well travelled, I have had the good fortune to encounter bits of history in the flesh so to speak. I’ve been to nearly 140 countries and each has a story. Before going to a country I read about its history and places to visit. I have tangible, real time reflections of historical events. (I wrote a blog in 2021 on “personal travel as a window into dark history”. Here is the link to that blog: https://powellponderings.com/personal-travel-as-a-window-into-dark-history/)
  1. There is a need to select, winnow, and prioritize what we know from a vast panoply, and study to make sense of it, and to learn from it. We have a unique problem in our current world of information because we now have so much information (some say too much, but that’s just what is) plus some of it is inaccurate. I thought I’d first of all make a try at this winnowing (in the four attachments). Then came the tough job – identifying and analyzing the broad themes and patterns. 

Broad themes and patterns – the gestalt – that emerge from this scan

The world has become a lot more complicated as the years advance. It faces many and increasingly complex crises.

Most categories are interrelated. Tech issues with inventions, religion and wars, energy and climate change, demographics with health, etc. Thus there are a range of possibilities, over the course of human history, that can be selected as broad themes. My selection will be skewed to what I think are important themes and patterns for our future.

  1. The nuclear weapon reality that has been superimposed upon history since 1945, i.e. the consequences to the world since the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. Tracking advances in military systems and strategies over history (from chariots to guns to tanks to drones, even to AI and gene manipulation), no event comes remotely close in importance. (I’ve since written on this and it can be found here: https://powellponderings.com/themes-and-patterns-emerging-from-a-scan-of-history/)
  1. Demographic realities and the link to health: this is a theme that’s becoming more critical as the human race expands over this planet, consuming resources all the time and emitting carbon with serious consequences. Human life span and health links are obvious and important.
  1. Wars and mankind’s continuous engaging in them: a male dominated pattern weaves its way through the centuries; technology has improved our capacity for destruction and mayhem. 
  1. The clash of political/philosophical governing positions: from democratic ideals to dictators. This considers the rise and fall of civilizations and nations leading to the current global upheaval triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rejigging of resulting global alliances. The rise and fall of nation states including proliferation of multi-country organizations and trading blocks should be considered.
  1. Philosophy and religion/belief systems: mankind’s constant search for meaning and the many, often conflicting answers, and the determined adherence to these beliefs. Are they all right; are they all wrong; what’s the important learnings; is there a “correct” path?
  1. Culture, language and writing: starting with how tens of thousands of years ago evolution kept selecting for the trait of “having language”, as those that did, gained a crucial advantage over those that didn’t, with homo sapiens winning the lottery. An extremely fast forward leads directly to the current fear that AI has hacked language – the operating system of our civilization. The world of intellect, including education, culture, language, literature, art, music, should be considered.
  1. Energy sources be they hydrocarbon, nuclear, renewables as they have evolved over the years – and the way they impact the next theme…
  1. Climate and the change it is undergoing: from a pre-industrial small population earth, we have reached hydrocarbon driven economies presenting serious consequences.
  1. Remarkable personalities, and how certain individuals have influenced history, which leads to…
  1. Gender, and the evolving roles of males and females.
  1. The cruel side of mankind. This must be addressed as history has so many terrible examples. Exterminations and assassinations are part of the equation.
  1. Disasters and major traumas and how influential they have been in history. This will include such areas as environment related (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and weather) and human influenced (famines, epidemics and plagues, even diasporas).
  1. Race and class issues: including the ancient history of slavery. Economic and cultural discrimination has evolved over time.
  1. Inventions and discoveries, including the advances made in medicine and health: man’s inexhaustible and clever ability to discover new ways to do things; science, technology and the new cyber world dominate.
  1. The worlds of outer space and inner exploration: circling the earth then breaking free to visit the moon and beyond; then going the other way in the “resolution revolution” and the potential of electron cryo-microscopy.
  1. The world of transportation: from the invention of the wheel, automobile, through to high speed trains, planes, to space ships out into the universe.
  1. The world of food and farming: considerations of sustainability; animal based and alternatives; the inequities that exist around the world.
  1. The world of work: including the rise of capitalism and the world of currencies, banking, trade, markets.  
  1. The world of recreation, sport, entertainment and leisure: as synched with the world of work and the connection with money and power.

They are all so interconnected. It is all so complex. Humans have emerged from being hunter-gatherers, where all we had to worry about was food and shelter, maintaining life long enough to procreate to continue our lineage, to the present where we are asking where is the power cord for our electronic devises so we can order food and be entertained.

In my next blog I’ll address the first “theme” – the nuclear weapon reality. In subsequent blogs, I’ll address others.

My source documents: Attachments #1, 2, 3 and 4

  • Scan of history: I needed to develop a broad scan of the history of the world to write coherently on broad themes and patterns. I naively embarked on this task, thinking what a grand and interesting challenge this would be. That was true, but grander than I thought. This task evolved (in a quite natural fashion) into a monumental scan of history.
  • Chronologically ordered: History can be organized many ways, including chronologically, culturally, territorially, and thematically. I chose to look at it chronologically, finding this essential to my efforts in extracting what I was searching for. It became my main source document from which I drew my general themes and patterns.
  • Sources: This personal scan of human history has been gleaned from a wide rage of sources: the library, media including the internet and my own travels. I wish I had done this “scan through history” many, many year ago. I would then have in my noggin a whole lot of useful and related information. While the act of Googling specific info is always available, the nuances around how they intersect and influence other events are critical. 
  • Accuracy: I attempted to use professional and traditional sources and cross-checked most controversial subjects. Some data, particularly in the early days of the evolution of the universe and the earth, is changing as the science gets more professional and uses more accurate methods.
  • It’s selective: Scanning history in whatever fashion is revealing for what is not chosen. This is particularly revealing when done by date. Any list cannot highlight all the important books, films, paintings, buildings, inventions. It will miss politicians, business leaders, scientists, physicians, actors, explorers, musicians, philosophers. It can’t capture all the conflicts or treaties. It has to be selective.
  • Caveat: While I the material I assembled in Attachments #1 to 4 has been/will be pivotal in the writing task, it is not necessary to read these documents to understand and react to a given blog itself. I do warn the reader that these documents are quite extensive. They are also very, very interesting!
  • Nevertheless, I do present them: 

* Attachment #1: Key Dates in World History: The Big Bang to 4 BC


* Attachment #2: Key Dates in World History: 4 BC to 1798 AD


* Attachment #3: Key Dates in World History: 1800 AD to 1945 


* Attachment #4: Key Dates in World History: 1945 to 1999

  • Attachment #5: Key Dates in World History: The 21st Century, 2000 to Present


1 thought on “On the Necessity of Studying History”

  1. I am personally concerned about history being rewritten for political purposes. The destruction of Sir John A. MacDonald and Henry Dundas are examples.

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