19 August 2013

On History (Or, Lessons That You Could Learn From The Past)

I just finished reading a world history book. Re-reading's a better term; I've had this book for more than two years.

For anyone interested in a fun, easy read about world history, it's called A Little History of the World, by Ernst Gombrich. (Note: it's Eurocentric, which I'll discuss below, and somewhat childish. It was written for kids to understand, but it's still very mature and readable.)

History is largely scorned and forgotten about in modern society. Ask any 15-year-old who ruled France after the Monarchy, and you will likely get one of these three responses:

a) Huh? I dunno.
b) Napoleon, I'm pretty sure.
c) Which time?

Napoleon gets a bad rap, imo.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The first response is most likely to be heard. The second is also sort of common, if you're talking to a reasonably intellectual person who knows history in degrees, and should be commended. And the third response (which res ipsa loquitur, I would totally respond with) is actually the most correct. The monarchy was replaced twice. Three times, if you count the Hundred Days of Napoleon.

History can be very useful. Extremely. George Bernard Shaw once said,
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
Overreacting? But Shaw was right. Many, many times, over the course of human history, whether it was Romulus Augustulus losing the Roman Empire, to Napoleon reinstalling the aspects of the ancien regime, to the VOC bringing themselves to their knees with corruption for the third time, to Hitler plunging Germany into another war, to anything repetitive and useless: we have done it before, and if it hasn't, it will be done again.

It's important to learn about history for these reasons. True, it's unlikely that you'll start a world war or give up the world's most powerful empire, but think about your own history. If you promised yourself you'd stay up to study once and just started getting distracted, and you have to study tonight, you might want to not be distracted. Just a vague way of explaining.

You should take the time and effort to pay attention in your history class or to read a history book. History can be very interesting if you learn about it the right way. You can do this a number of ways. The one that will get you most through your history class is to lose your sense of knowing. Let me explain.

Imagine you're a Dutch sailor with, let's say, the VOC. (See here if you don't know what it is or you've forgotten.) The year is 1645 and the New World awaits. You've always wanted to go visit the colonies along there, including New Amsterdam! Imagine what it must be like. If you've ever been on a boat or even a plane, imagine seeing a new place for the first time from far off. Imagine the new people you'll meet: Native Americans, merchants, Pilgrims and Puritans, and even some of your "fellow sailors". I find that usually works.

Not all of history is fun though. Even I have to concede that. There are parts of history that I will barely discuss or mention or not even study, maybe, because I find it boring. (case in point: The Catholic Church, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Greece, and the Incas.) Those are my boring spots: everything else I'm eager to learn. But even if you bear a hatred to all types of history, you should still try to at least learn one thing about it. You'll seem smarter, you'll be a better person because of it because you'll learn how something somewhere affected someone, and humans in general have done some pretty crazy things.

Take the Amber Room, my most recent Triviality column. Could you ever have imagined a whole room a quarter the size of a football field covered in amber? It's amazing even to me and I've spent a lot of time researching it and knowing it as such.

History is not without its weak points. It's biased. Remarkably. That's a history student's job - to cover everything equally. From the 1500s to about 1950, Europe ruled the world in empires and monarchies. As a result, we have classes that only cover Europe. We have textbooks that cover the British monarchy in 3 chapters and only a paragraph is devoted to slavery in Africa, or what-have-you. It's important to look beyond the historical bias and look at the larger picture. (I'm slightly to blame - I've devoted columns to Dutch empires, Danish kings and Spanish colonial systems. I am making it my job to discuss other aspects of history.) But we are getting better, which equality in all aspects of society, which is just awesome! It's pretty amazing, when you see how everything can work out together. There will be always be shining moments in history, even in the darkest of moments.

What's your favorite part about history?


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