I’m sorry, friends and readers, but there is no “weird history” article for May. In its place, however, I am posting an explanation for why we study history, why history is important, and why I insist on writing and reading about history.
Before we begin: When I talk about how I love history, I’m not saying “I love memorizing names and dates.” That is often the reason why people dislike history, and I don’t blame them. History is about context, about trends and movements and ideas, and how multiple events and dates and names add up and influence how one thing led to another to bring us to where we are now!
The statement, “Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin,” is indeed boring and meaningless on its own. The statement comes alive when you understand how this invention made cotton cultivation more profitable. This influenced the economy of the American South and may have encouraged the further use of slavery in the United States, which affected the nation’s politics and race relations over the decades. The cotton gin was one small but vital part of the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th/early 19th centuries and increased U.S. cotton exports, encouraging the textile industry and the growth of factories. In a broad and roundabout way, Eli Whitney not only invented the cotton gin, but he invented the U.S. Civil War, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and Fruit of the Loom.
With that in mind…The Three Reasons Why History Is Important
There are many Christian conservatives in my family and social circles, and I have noticed something among them—a tremendous, all-consuming fear. Fear about the economy, the secularization of American culture, Muslim extremists, and so many other things. A better understanding of human history could allay some of those fears. Humans have hated and killed each other for as long as there have been humans, and we have managed to be fruitful and multiply in spite of that. A study of the Crusades and Middle Eastern history (I highly recommend The Thousand Year War in the Mideast: How It Affects You Today by Richard J. Maybury) can teach us an unexpected amount about current events.
For Christians, a better understanding of the history of their own faith (not to mention the Bible itself) can also help. The Jews opposed Jesus partly because he was not the “right” Savior—they wanted a military and political leader to sweep away the oppressive Roman regime. Even today, many American Christians are looking for a military and political leader to conquer in the name of God’s kingdom. The problem is that these leaders are still men serving their own interests. The entire point of Jesus’ coming was to establish a kingdom not of this earth—and to promise to return again in an unmistakeable fashion. A historical understanding of the Roman Empire and the Christian church since the Resurrection can also teach conservative Christians that the world might not be at its very worst point (spoiler alert: it has always been kind of terrible) and that there are still reasons to hope and rejoice today.
As I have already hinted in #1, people who remain ignorant of history are at greater risk of being taken advantage of, especially by unscrupulous leaders seeking ever more power. Someone who doesn’t understand the history of socialism may be wooed by political candidates who promote it. Someone who lacks an understanding of the rise of fascism in the 20th century may not recognize the warning signs in the 21st. People have twisted history or straight-up lied about it to further their own agendas. Taking matters—and knowledge—into your own hands can help prevent you from becoming a victim.
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
~ a description of Hitler’s psychological profile, as described during WWII by the United States Office of Strategic Services
When it comes to literature, everything is fanfiction (an idea on which I may elaborate in a future post). Likewise, everything is history. Everything is based on or inspired by something that came before. New types of music, film, fashion, and architecture emerge as trends and tastes evolve over time. New scientific discoveries are based on the successes and failures of previous research. Reference-heavy comedy is only funny if you understand what it is referencing, i.e., what happened in the past. Language changes over time, so a historical context is often necessary when examining outdated words and phrases. People not only repeat history—they become history.
These are, for me, the three main reasons why history is important. If you love history, why do you love it? If you’ve never thought history was interesting or important, why is that? What would make it matter to you? Let’s hear your perspectives!