Why history is really a ‘today’ thing

I’m always intrigued by the way people generally view history. To some  it’s a dead past, uninteresting. Others look on it as a trainspotting exercise in data-collection. Academics, on my experience, use the subject as a device for validating self-worth.

Wright_Books2Henry Ford, reputedly, insisted history was ‘bunk’. In a way he was right, because we can’t change the past and what’s important for us in any practical sense is not just today – but tomorrow. But in other ways he missed the point. So do the people who look on history as ‘one d—d thing after another’, or trainspotter-style lists of fun facts, or a ‘trip down memory lane’.

All these views have their value and place, of course. But they miss the point of history as a way of discovering meaning not just about the past – but the present. History, in that broadest sense, is all about explaining the journey from past to present. And through that explanation, we can understand how the shapes and patterns of the present came to be so – deepening our understanding of the present and giving us insights into our likely future.

History, in short, is really a ‘today’ thing. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


20 thoughts on “Why history is really a ‘today’ thing

    1. It certainly is! Only through history and knowing our journey from past to present can we understand that present. And get a handle on the possibilities for our future.

  1. My favorite comeback to those who ignore history is probably overused. Still, I truly believe that “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” I think some look at history and don’t relate to it because things now are not “exactly” like they were then, so then they ask, “what’s the point?” We shouldn’t get confused by the details (they didn’t have cell-phones in ww2), but we should look at the driving forces that have existed and propelled humanity since we stepped out of the trees. Very little has changed in the way human beings think since writing (and thus history) was developed.

    The United States has just signed a nuclear deal with Iran. Does this mean everything is all hunkey dorey? Everyone happy? Do we have “Peace in our time?” After Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain believed everything would be alright if he just “talked” with Mr. Hitler. Later he returned to England, proudly waving an agreement and claiming he had obtained, “Peace in our time.” We all know how that turned out. A lot of people argue about the efficacy of this Iranian nuclear deal. No matter whether some claim it’s smart or it’s dumb, I still will never feel that anything is “certain.” That’s because, I’ve kept up with history.

    1. I agree. History never repeats in a narrative sense. But human nature, at its fundamentals, never changes. And so we see the same general patterns coming up time and again. Always framed differently, but in essence the same mistakes. And, optimistically, also triumphs. I remain convinced that Churchill – who had written that enormous History of the English Speaking Peoples – knew very well where Hitler was going. Because Cromwell had done much the same thing in his own time and way…

  2. I used to think history was a waste of time. It’s over, done, why bother. Then I got Mr. H in 5th grade. He made history come alive and showed how it affected out lives today. I’ve never looked at history the same way since. In my 60+ years, I’ve seen history repeat itself more than I ever imagined possible. It’s like we humans never learn.

    1. To me the main lesson of history is that humans never learn. History never repeats in the specific. But the individual and social behaviours that drive things always do.

  3. One of the best psychology books I ever read was about PTSD. The historical relationship occurs because the book linked veterans of the Vietnam War to veterans of the perhaps-mythical Trojan War — thus raising the interesting question of the effect of PTSD as a social phenomenon affecting the development and progress of entire civilizations over millenia. History is one of the most fascinating subjects of all. Now if we could only find or otherwise produce a Hari Seldon to make it systematic.

    1. I’ve often wondered about Asimov’s ‘psychohistory’, but I think broad human society can’t be reduced to a few rules (like physics) and rendered mathematical – certainly not in terms of being able to predict events 1000 years into the future. I think Asimov knew that too – witness the Mule cycle and the whole ‘Second Foundation’ that had to work to keep things on track.

      In the real world, even efforts to ‘harden’ social history into a numbers discipline – pioneered in the 1960s by Peter Laslett and others – have been fraught with problems, because the numbers don’t describe the fuzzier realities of the human condition, still less way social trend. This reached absurd levels in New Zealand circa 1981-84, where a historian at my university concluded that if you analysed our 19th century settler society via stats for litigation, assault and drinking charges, then it proved that the settlers spent their time drinking, hitting and suing each other. He decided this meant settler society lacked society.

      Instead, he insisted, it consisted of loners – labourers and and vagabonds who took out their frustration at loneliness via intellectualised litigation, communal punch-ups, and socialising in pubs. The obvious flaws and contradictions in the logic apparently never occurred to the academic in question and the whole thing – then and now – leaves me wondering whether he had any experience or understanding of the real world.

    2. Further to this – I think PTSD is absolutely a common human accompaniment to war – all wars. Although it became obvious in WW1, there are stories of what was called ‘soldiers’ heart’ in the US Civil War – now thought to be down to PTSD type phenomena. And the ancient Greek evidence suggests that it was nothing new. I think the only real difference was that as technology ‘improved’, it became easier to induce it – and to draw in larger slabs of any population into that experience.

    1. Not really…other than trying to understand the human condition (as Seldon did, only he had Trantor to work with…) And now that you mention it, wearing a very different hat, I did once produce (and slightly feature in) a video about a water-driven analog computer that analysed the economy:

  4. The more history you read, the more you see the same situations repeated over and over again. It makes you pretty good at interpreting what will happen in any given situation today.

    Many make the mistake of thinking we’re different and more intelligent that the people who lived in the past. We’re actually exactly the same – it’s just that human knowledge has advanced so we know more. Relationships weren’t as different as people think either, including sexual relationships. Less about the lives of ordinary people has survived, but when it does, you can see people got on with each other pretty much the same as we do, and there was just as complex a range of personalities.

    1. Yes, human nature hasn’t changed. The circumstances do – but the way we respond and react…not so much. Actually, usually not at all. And I agree, if we go back in history we find people who were just as smart, just as complex – and who regarded their world as just as complex, challenging and difficult as we regard ours.

  5. History is, among other things, a record of every problem ever faced, what was tried to overcome them, what didn’t work, and what did work. How could that not be valuable?

    1. Absolutely true. And if we don’t know history, we won’t learn from what happened, and so won’t recognise when the same mistakes happen again, in different guise – driven by that commonality of human nature.

  6. I may be blind, but I always try to see the bigger picture. I believe history is vital in that. We know more, so why don’t we do better? Why do we humans never learn?
    I have been attending a speakers series at a museum this summer called A History For Today.
    Why is humanity so ignorant, arrogant, and I’m the blind one?

    1. I fear the problem is that humanity has been unable to shed a basic, and rather flawed, nature. One we can discover from knowing history, if only we allow ourselves to learn. Some of us do learn, of course. Others? Sigh…

  7. Agreed, with bells on! Every generation writes its own history, based on the interpretation of the past by historians, biographers, novelists, archaeologists and others and by the concerns of the present. Over a decade ago I wrote a book on historic places and put the Treaty House down as a 1930s place, to the consternation of some.

    1. But – but – how can this be, when the ‘Trainspotters and Accountants’ OCD List Of Historical Data’ clearly shows it was built from kitset parts in 1833? 🙂

      Never mind the fact that the relevance of the place wasn’t recognised until the country approached the centenary and suddenly realised the building was falling into rack and ruin – thus rendering the late 1930s effectively the first time when the place was really relevant at any widespread level.

      I’d actually go further – I suspect that each generation doesn’t merely re-write history to suit its own needs: it re-mythologises along the way, often when a historian manages to say something that precisely keys into contemporary social need and measures of status. Certainly true for NZ – it took us three generations to get away from the ‘Smithing’ of our past. And I suspect it will take as long to get away from the ‘Beliching’ that replaced it.

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