What good is history?

If you ask a group of schoolkids to name their favorite subject, not many would say history. Many would say history is just memorizing what a bunch of now-dead people did a long time ago, so who cares? On the other end of the spectrum is author Michael Crichton, who said “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re like a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.”

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So who needs history, anyway? Everyone does. History is the record of what people did and how it turned out; in other words, history is a catalog of experiences and precedent. Almost anything you can think of as a new idea or strategy has been done before in one form or another and the results are on record. Think of life as a series of tests and history as a book with all the answers in it. Why would you ignore it and learn the hard way?

Suppose you had a number of friends that were alcoholics and neglected their families, destroyed their heath, endangered drivers, and impoverished themselves because of it. You know this problem is widespread and you might think that banning alcohol is  reasonable response. Why not stop the problem in its tracks by using the power of the state to remove the curse of alcohol once and for all?

Well, if you know nothing of history, you might just go out and start a movement to prohibit alcohol. If you did, you would be quickly embarrassed when someone who does know about history tells you it has already been done in 1920 and the results were an explosion of drinking, bootlegging, and organized crime until Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933. How about Socialism? If you are ignorant of history it might seem like simple share and share alike, but if you read of places where Socialism was actually tried, you can see how disastrous it is in practice.

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History is a series of experiments by people. Some ideas work and some don’t. Nearly all have unexpected consequences. How do you know if a proposed action is a mistake? What if you’re wrong? It can be an expensive lesson. I once heard a coworker say “I never make the same mistake twice….but I’ve made all of them once!”

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Someone said that an experienced man learns from his mistakes, but an educated man learns from the mistakes of others. That is the value of history; it is a record of thousands of experiments and actions by thousands of people, and how they turned out. Going through life without a knowledge of history is like trying to find your way to a destination by driving down streets at random when you have a map or GPS that you never consult.

 

 

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