I began this year with a desire to read more history. One history book I had placed on my 2020 reading list, and I’m now less than 50 pages away from completing it, is A Concise History of Modern Europe by David S. Mason. It has been an enjoyable and illuminating read. The way in which this history is communicated, far from being dry or merely factoidal, has been intellectually stimulating. Things make more sense now because I have a fuller grasp of the context in which to understand them. I see the historical roots that hold in place the ideas and institutions of my own day, whether for good or for ill.  It is a book I recommend to you.  This post, however, is not a review of a book. I rather wish to speak generally, and briefly, on the importance of studying history in the hopes that you too will indulge yourself in the stories of the past, in order to make better sense of the present. You will find, too, that the past is often a lens through which we may catch a glimpse of the future.

In his recently published book, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, Wilfred M. McClay captures the essence of history’s importance in rather poetic fashion.

Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. Without memory, and without the stories by which our memories are carried forward, we cannot say who, or what, we are. Without them, our life and thought dissolve into a meaningless, unrelated rush of events. Without them, we cannot do the most human of things: we cannot learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise children, establish rules of conduct, engage in science, or dwell harmoniously in society. Without them, we cannot govern ourselves.[1]

McClay rightly captures the heart of studying history – developing an identity in the context of a heritage. This allows us to understand the world in which we live – the mores, ideas, and institutions in all their complexity. It sharpens our sense of discernment as we become acquainted with ideas and their consequences. It forces us to ponder the meaning of life as it has unfolded over the centuries; the Providential Hand of his-story reaches out and flicks us on the forehead. It tugs at our emotions as we read of battles, bravery, beauty, and betrayal – things that movies are based on but only the printed page can sear into our minds; for the former crowds out knowledge and wisdom (the stuff of education) by way of entertainment, whereas the latter holds them all in high honor.[2]  How can I stress, all the more, this great importance of history?

If one wished to overthrow a governmental structure or turn societal shames into societal norms, the best thing to do would be to divorce the people of their history; for, as we have already seen, to know one’s history is to have an identity – a shared identity.  To alter this identity, therefore, you must alter the history or make it as if they had no history.  If you make the people utterly ignorant of history, in which case they fail to develop an identity with those of the past, they are sure to possess minds born of yesterday, ready to be filled with “new knowledge”.  If, however, you feed them a revisionary history in the matters most critical to the development and establishment of the world in which they live, the people soon feel a sense of betrayal, being so distant to what they now believe “ought to be”.  Impulsively, they set out to “set things straight”.

History is a troubling, beautiful, and important matter.  Be sure to make it a matter of your reading.

[1] McClay, Wilfred M. Land of Hope (NY: Encounter Books, 2019). XII.

[2] For a wonderful treatment on the importance of the medium used in communicating information, read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.