Why Study History?
Last week, when discussing how to teach Modern Art, Modernism, and Modernity in an Art History course, our class discussed the challenges of teaching art history and what aspects of the discipline are worth exploring. The core question was: how do we teach art history? When driving into work today I explored the reasons why it’s important to study history at all.
New ideas and concepts are built on the foundation of knowledge. Whether you read it in a book, made a mistake, and then suffered for it, or you went line dancing and met a girl who dug your chili and the way you scoot, you gained knowledge (and I would argue, the equally important experience). All of these pile up inside you as raw material. You have a base of knowledge and experience from which you can pull.
Every idea you come up with today is only as good as the content you have inside you to pull from. Metaphors, building designs, accounting, love letters, breakthroughs in understanding the human genome, logo design: they all have to come from somewhere. You may have a muse, but they’re just a catalyst. If you don’t have raw material in you to pull from, then you will be found out as the person in class who didn’t read the material. Worse still, you won’t come up with anything good.
Pick your history, any history. Ancient history, recent history, the endless episodes of Friends you watched, yesterday: it’s all history. So, by banking the histories inside you, by learning the stories of others, mistakes that have been made, the cultural movements, and pivotal moments (a.k.a. Friends, again), one has the raw material to pull from to understand the world around them and also to pull from when creating something new. Intellectually, you’ll have a frame of reference, culturally you’ll be on the inside of all of the inside jokes. And yes, they were on a break (last Friends reference).
My study in anthropology has challenged me that there is no one, truly perceivable history. We as humans tell the stories, but they are all from our own perspectives. Dr. Veteto, a professor in anthropology at the University of North Texas and an expert in ethnoecology and biodiversity presented the concept very clearly. If there are multiple accounts from multiple people, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of all of those perceptions. Because everyone has their own spin, it requires looking at concepts from those multiple viewpoints in discovering just where the truth lies. It requires a study of history from multiple perspectives in order to make up your own mind on what actually happened.
The more study of history one does, the more voices add to the conversation, and the more accurate your own perception will be. History’s use here is to serve as a body of knowledge to pull from in understanding the voices and perceptions of others while also creating new things today. Thanks to Bernard of Chartres and then Isaac Newton, the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants” exists. If we are to attain any lofty idea, we must elevate. What better way to gain understanding than to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and have written their stories? In the case of amassing raw material in an effort to better understand and elevate, history is better than a step stool.
Seeing the Future
Have you ever wanted to see the future? Well, it’s already happened. In the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, Solomon writes one idea over and over and over and over again (it’s a little annoying actually) but he gets his point across: there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all happened before. So let’s test this: recession, poverty, the end to once-incurable diseases, skinny jeans, war, the popularity of frozen yogurt, they’ve all happened over and over again. So if we look at history through the lens of Solomon’s wise writings, then history is bound to come back again. The Propellerheads had it right “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”
If history repeats, then the study of history can arguably be the study of the future. Ideally (a la Back to the Future) we can prevent what has happened before by making choices today to subvert the cycle. We as a race aren’t great at not repeating our mistakes, but ideally, if we understand the history and the circumstances that led to the events in the past, we can make choices now that will redirect circumstances toward a more desired result.
But what about technologies that are emerging today that have never been seen before. Does that destroy my future is the past idea? Mobile computing, wireless technologies, and communications networks are more complex and inventive today than ever before. But at the time of their creations, the telephone, television, and radio were all technologies that were just as game-changing and inventive. While the technologies are different, the study of the effects of these technologies on the culture is the more important and relevant study. The technologies may be radically different, but we can examine their effects just the same way and that leads to a valuable history that can be applied to the future. By studying the past ramifications of invention, we can better anticipate the future impacts of current technological advances. That goes for any study of history, even if your study applies to oranges and apples, they still make a similar splash when they are dropped in a bucket of water,
Understanding, exploring, and examining the past reveals the motivations, challenges, and potential outcomes for the future. When one has a base of knowledge of history, then one can better anticipate the future. Stick that in your crystal ball and smoke it.
Too often, the study of history is wasted on students because they labor through the process without hope for application. Creativity is still a mystery, and in that mystery is the fact that one never knows from where the one will pull concepts when making ideas or connections. So, while students are studying the escalation of the cold war, learning about labor unions in and around the steel industry, and examining what brought about the discontinuation of the use of cabooses on trains, they have no idea how (or if) they’ll use the information in the future. My experience shows that a third of it will be used for sure, just which third? (My money is on the caboose.) The challenge for students is for them to have faith that what they are learning will add up to something valuable. Not an easy thing for high school students or even college undergraduates. But if you’re reading this, trust me, It’ll pay off.
In all of this, learning history has value, but only because the study of history has modern applications. As I examine my teaching philosophy while gearing up to become an educator, the same theme rises to the top: how does the information I am teaching impact students in a way where they can use it today? I’m constantly asking myself how I can integrate the historical experience to add relevance to a concept or emphasis to an idea. In doing this, I pull from my knowledge of history every day. As educators, we must find ways to create value in the study of history for our students. History shows it’s worth it.