Shortly before Christmas, I was running some late-night errands when I heard a lecture by David McCollough, the Pulizer Prize-winning historian, on NPR. It was an unexpected Christmas gift.
Our culture does not appreciate history much. We are a people of industry and innovation and technology – we think only the present and the near future matter. With the increasingly rapid pace of change brought on by technology, even ten years ago feels like the distant past, and almost by definition irrelevant. (See, for example, the Onion's coverage: "Internet Archaeolgists Find Ruins of 'Friendster' Civilization".) Why, then does history matter at all?
History is not merely useful or good. McCollough maintains it is vital to the education of our children, and most especially to our leaders:
We are descended from a long line of ancestors who worked hard and sacrificed much, all with pretty much one aim: to make sure their descendants had a better life. If we don't know, and don't care, about what they gave us, and what it cost we run the risk of losing it. "That's not just ignorance – that's being rude," said McCollough. We can't begin to appreciate the blessings of our society without learning what it was like before. "Theirs was not a happier, simpler time. Their lives were difficult, complicated, and so much harder than ours."
History gives us the perspective to meet that challenges that currently face us. America has been through tremendous challenges before, and survived, mostly through the efforts of its citizens and often through luck. It helps to remember that. We will be less discouraged if we remember past victories. "People say 9/11 was the worst threat the United States has ever faced," said McCollough, "And those people have absolutely no sense of history. Yes, 9/11 was terrible and awful and threat to the United States . . . but it's not the worst thing we ever faced." It's so easy for us to forget that the outcomes of the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or World War II, were anything but foregone conclusions. The Revolution itself could have been lost on half a dozen occasions, just in the first year.
History informs our moral choices. The heroes of the American Revolution – George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox – were extremely aware of the historic context of their actions. They all studied history – the classical liberal education, including the study of Greek and Latin, was entirely geared towards preparing students to read the classics of history and literature. They all knew that future historians would judge them and their actions, just as they had judged those who came before them. It was extremely important to them to carry that duty carefully. One of Washington's favorite lines he often quoted was from the historical play Cato: "Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more . . . we'll deserve it."
History is essentially a long set of case studies in leadership. We read primarily about the leaders of the past: what they did, why they did it, what worked, what didn't. We come away from reading history with an appreciation of what it means to be a leader. In McCollough's opinion, the most important qualities are persistence in the face of adversity, honor, and an ability to spot and use the talents of others.
Human beings are creatures who love stories. For almost as long as human beings have existed, most of our knowledge, culture and values have been transmitted through the medium of stories. History, properly done, is the story of people. History can teach us more than anything else because, simply, that's how our brains are built. I heard a joke once, among some AI scientists: "All the scientists of the world worked together for many years, and they finally had built a computer so power and complex that it could completely understand the human mind. They powered it up, and they asked it: "What's the meaning of life?" And the computer answered: "That reminds me of a story . . ."
After hearing the lecture, I went back to my bookshelves and found a gift from several Christmases past: a copy of 1776, McCollough's best-selling history of the beginning of the American Revolution. It is every bit as good as the critics proclaim. One of the advantages of my relative ignorance of history: it makes for an exciting story when you read it for the first time.
I think I'm like a lot of people who have a deep sense that it is important to know history, but can't articulate why. I feel the same way about certain sciences, such as cosmology, that have no practical benefit. If these things are knowable, then we should know them.