As a Living History Interpreter, one question I hear repeatedly, and one that is perhaps most central to what I do, is “Why do we need to know this?”
This is a loaded question. I could throw out the old stale answer “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” The problem is this does not work on a 15-year-old, who has little concern for education or with most of the public for that matter. They just do not get it.
I would make the case that history is a most important subject for everyone. Our identity as individual human beings is indivisibly linked to knowledge of our own history. Science and mathematics do not tell us who we are, that knowledge can only come from knowing who we, as a people, have been. Our history is what defines this for the United States, and holds us together in varying degrees of cohesion. With an increasing immigrant population from non-European countries, we are a less homogeneous population than we once were. Aside from hunger, thirst, and threat to life and limb, an understanding of history, and a feeling of being a part of something, is probably the single most powerful uniting reason for human behavior in a society. Science, the Law, and even Politics, rest on a foundation of historical precedent, both real and imagined. History, and our understanding of it, is the driving force that shapes the way we see our world, the matrix into which we fit everything and everyone else.
Unlike physics, chemistry, and astronomy, knowing one’s history does not need years of intense, specialized training: all it requires is an interest, literacy, and critical thinking skills. A person may get by in life without knowledge of scientific principles or anything beyond basic math skills, but no human organization can survive without history. Those who forget their history, or neglect it, will forever be doomed to continue stepping in it.
Now, let us return to how to explain this to a 15-year-old High School Student. Why does a 15-year-old need to know who attacked Pearl Harbor, who the first president was, or how we became a free country?
Knowledge is power, and by using knowledge, people gain wealth and position in society. Those with the most knowledge dominate those who have less. This is a basic fact of human relations and has been true since the beginning of civilization. Some dominate with evil intent, and some dominate with benevolence, but no matter the motivation, those with the most knowledge manipulate and control the rest of the population.
In George Orwell’s book, 1984, one of the slogans of the totalitarian government of Oceania was, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” We all understand that if we hear a story that suits our ideology, it is easier to believe it without too much questioning, regardless of the truth. Therefore, those who are ignorant of history are easily misled by those who have an “agenda’; whether that is to gain political support or to ensure economic dominance. So, which are you, one of the sheep or one of the wolves?
One of the greatest inventions in our history was the printing press. Because of this development, the “common man” gained access to books and was able to read and “digest” the knowledge and ideas of the great minds of earlier generations. Now all could have this knowledge, and not just a few. Many scholars today believe that this explosion of knowledge among the masses led directly to the ideas that formed the basis for the American form of government. Yet, in our schools today, there is almost no reading of “the classics,” or even the works of the great writers of the “Enlightenment” who influenced the thinking of our Founding Fathers. One again, with knowledge comes power, with ignorance comes ease of manipulation.
If you do not know what happened before you, if you do not have any role models, if you do not understand the issues and know what you stand for, you will soon be used, manipulated and easily tossed aside as worthless. The French philosopher Voltaire said, “History never repeats itself, Man always does.” Perhaps this is because Man through the ages has failed to learn the lessons of history.
As corny as it may sound, Colonial Williamsburg‘s motto really sums it all up: “That the future may learn from the past”