What history teaches history teaches
History is endlessly fascinating.
If I were restricted to one class of reading, history would be it. I am not alone. Whenever politicians are asked for their favorite books, they seem to be history and biography (even as you suspect that the list was actually compiled by an aide), and the busiest corners of used bookstores seem to be the history sections.
When I was a boy, devouring the school library, I avoided fiction. “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true,” I told my parents — misunderstanding the nature of truth, as one is likely to do in the second grade.
History provides at least four important things for the growing brain. In order of ascending importance, they are:
Entertainment — A well-written history is fun to read. When you are reading Barbara Tuchman or Edward Gibbons, you are reading a page-turner. As one history lover has written on his Web page: “It’s not the facts or dates we want. We want, for a time, to be the person who rode out of Paris to go on a Crusade, and rode past serfs tilling the land, dressed in browns and blacks because they were forbidden to wear bright colors by law. We want to feel the pride of being French, thinking that we could defeat the German army because, we are French! But alas, the Germans crush us anyway. What did we feel then? Tuchman tells history as a story, and makes us feel the wonder of the connection we have with all the myriad, strange, and beautiful humans who have lived and died to bring us to where we are today.”
Guidance — Reading history shows you what other people have done when faced with situations similar to those you may find yourself facing. You can benefit by their mistakes as well as their successes. It is also useful to know history to recognize the prospects for current policy choices made for us by government. Should we get into this war?
Before entering Syria, we might want to re-read our Herodotus. We wish to god George W. Bush had read it before going into Iraq.
But you don’t have to go all the way back to the Persian Wars. You have a different view of it if you know the history of the division of the Mideast into mandates after World War I. If you want to really understand the recent presidential elections, you must know the organization of the Roman imperial and republican governments and the sway they held over this nation’s founding fathers. The roots are that deep.
The saddest truth of all — after Jean Renoir’s quote from Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons” — is that, pace Santayana, it is not those who don’t learn from history who are condemned to repeat it; those who have learned their history are the ones who see it repeated endlessly. To those who know nothing of history, it’s brand spanking new each time it happens.
Humility — More important than reading popular histories, though, is attempting to do some actual history, yourself. Few people ever give much thought to what a historian does. I suppose if you asked the man on the street, he would say a historian reads a lot of books and then writes his own. But history is altogether more difficult and tenuous. For what is history? (I know Gibbon himself gives one answer: “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”) No, history is the tentative answer to the puzzle of missing parts.
A historian sifts through the extant records of a time long extinguished and attempts to piece them together in a way that makes convincing sense. He reads letters, court records, newspaper accounts, bank statements, weather records, church chronicles and royal edicts; he attempts to put them in chronological order and reconcile the inconsistencies; he has to weigh which records to trust and which to doubt; he has to be familiar with the biases of the times, to know what “code words” mean — and each age has its code words.
You can do some genuine history for yourself: Attempt to write the story of your grandparents, for instance, using your parents’ recollections, old family Bibles, family snapshots, birth and marriage certificates. You will be astonished at two things: how difficult it is to make it all coherent, and how fascinating it is to make the attempt. And that leads to the fourth and most important thing history can bring us.
Respect — If there is a single sin that is most widely committed by the public, it is that of presentism — the belief that people in the past thought and acted just as we would, only without the benefits of modern technology.
In fact, those in the past not only thought differently, they lived in a world differently defined: Things which were manifest to them are ignored by us; things we find self-evident, they never gave a thought to. What we learn is a different kind of humility. Not just the humility of the historian knowing what effort it takes to recreate the past, but the humility of knowing that there are other ways to organize and value the world than those we currently take for granted.
We wander into church in shorts and shirts; our grandparents wouldn’t have dared. They lived in a more formal world, in which the formality expressed respect. We live in a culture that values independence and individuality. Other cultures valued group cooperation more highly.
History shows us that we aren’t always “right” and the past isn’t always “wrong,” but that at all times, we are seeking to know and do what is real and just, but are blinded or frustrated by the biases of the day.
I’m not talking about excusing our slave-owning founding fathers but understanding how they believed the world to be organized by the divinity they believed in. Understanding is different from judging. If we recognize the sincerity of Thomas Jefferson, and not just the hypocrisy, we may allow the possibility that we, living now, may be just as guilty of another sin, which we ourselves cannot see clearly.
History makes us less self-righteous. And the less smug, the less likely we are to make evil on our fellow human beings. This is why the last aspect of reading history is the most important.