Why We Need to Know Our History
David W. Hegg
Winston Churchill is credited with reminding the world “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” History, being in many ways the succinct compilation of humanity’s success and failures, has long been recognized as an essential part of any real education. Yet today we are fast becoming a nation that is not only ignorant of its past but pleased about being so.
Perhaps it is the fast-paced technological world we live in that is to blame. There is no doubt that what was good last year is now obsolete when it comes to so many of the strategies and gadgets that fuel our everyday lives. No one listens to last year’s music, wears last year’s clothes, or comments on ideas that “are so five minutes ago.” The world is rushing forward, and we’ve got to keep up if we ever want to get ahead.
I am not against technological advancement, as myiGadgets bear witness. But as I talk to many of the emerging generation I’m finding a shocking pair of dangerous trends. They don’t know history, and they don’t care to. There is a solid agreement among a majority today that anything that really matters has happened since they came on the scene. In fact, they laugh and mock ideas older than the cell phone. To them, real knowledge crawled out of the cave while they were in high school. Okay, maybe I’m overstating the case a bit, but you get the point. Too many are no longer interested in studying the past in order to secure their future. They believe the past holds nothing for them. In this they are wrong, dangerously so.
Here’s why. Knowledge is a grand thing and is worth pursuing with every ounce of our being. But knowledge is not an end in itself. The ancients understood that knowledge is not wisdom, and it is wisdom that makes life both satisfying to self and beneficial to others.
Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and the correlations between them. Wisdom is the application of said knowledge to life, guided by experience. Wisdom is the skill of righteous, profitable living and it only comes as we temper and train our knowledge with the insights of experience.
And it will not do to think the only helpful experience is our own. Those who came before us encountered most of the same challenges and opportunities we have, even though the particulars were different. Their successes and failures are like a free university education to the student savvy enough to look backward expectantly.
Ask any successful person and they will tell you the day they realized they were actually standing on the shoulders of those who came before. It may have come as they read the life stories of pioneering men and women, or perhaps it was when they were stumped and some sage professor suggested they go back a few decades or centuries and listen to those who first solved the problem.
We need to learn from history. But first we’ll have to admit that we don’t know everything, and the past isn’t “obsolescence-ville.” In most fields, the fundamental truths were mined long ago, and if we turn up our noses at what our forefathers learned and accomplished, we’ll most certainly end up repeating their failures.
Churchill was right. Let’s make sure the current generation finds out who he was, and that there are many more wise voices in the corridors of history.