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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Why is it Important to Study History?

In our last living history article a few weeks ago, we answered a few questions to help our readers to understand the terms we use in our living history practice, as well as a bit about our mindset and our approach to historical accuracy. Today, we are going to move on and talk about one of the most frequent questions that you may get from our guests and some possible answers.

So, why should I care about history?

So simple a question, yet one with so many possible answers; some good and some bad. You could, without a lot of deep thought give the old favorite answer of, "those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it." The problem with this response is that it does not work on a 15-year-old, who has little concern for education or appreciation for the past. Nor does it really work for an “adult” who never developed an appreciation of history and who lives his life focused on the immediate future and not giving thought to the larger questions in life, the ones that can have long term effects on the way his/her life will play out. They have all heard that lame quote, and the fact they are asking you the question is a sign that it has not supplied the answers they are looking for. As a living history practitioner, we need to take the position that history is an important subject for everyone and be able to articulate why.

Our identity as an individual human being is linked to knowledge of our own history. Today, schools focus on STEM education, often at the expense of the humanities. Unfortunately, this creates the problem that science and mathematics, by themselves, do not tell us who we are, or give us a sense of what our ancestors lived through and therefore does not give people a full set of tools with which to understand the world. That knowledge can only come from not only the sciences, but also from studying and understanding history and the rest of the “humanities”, both the good and the bad. From that we can begin to understand exactly who we are, where we come from as a person, and who Americans are as a people. Aside from hunger, thirst, and threat to life and limb, that understanding, and feeling of being a part of something, is the single most powerful uniting factor for human society.

Propaganda Poster from 1984
Propaganda Poster from 1984

In George Orwell’s book, 1984, one of the slogans of the totalitarian government of Oceania was, "Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past." We all understand that if we are told a version of a story that suits our ideology, it is easier to believe it without too much questioning, regardless of the truth. Therefore, those who are ignorant of history are easily misled by those who have an “agenda,” whether that is to gain political support or to ensure their own economic dominance. With this in mind, let’s look at seven reasons that one can give a guest why it is important to learn about our history.

1. History helps us develop a better understanding of the world.

Today, many folks understanding of history comes from Television shows and Cinema. Unfortunately, while these can be quite entertaining, and have the capability to teach a lot about our past, we have to keep in mind that most of these TV shows and movies are written to attract viewers and put $ into the pockets of the Production Companies. For that reason, they often take “liberties” with the accuracy of the tales they tell or “slant” the story to appeal to a particular audience, often by not reflecting all sides of an event. Movie and TV viewers like to have “good guys” and “bad guys” and are not happy when faced with the complexities and “shades of grey” found in many historical events.

You can’t build a framework on which to base your life without understanding how things really work in the world. History paints us a detailed picture of how society, technology, and government worked, or didn’t work, in the past so that we can better understand how it works now. Of all the reasons to study history, this one might be the most important. How can we understand society today without understanding how it developed and why? It also helps us figure out how to approach the future, as it allows us to learn from our past mistakes (and triumphs) as a society.

2. History helps us understand ourselves.

To understand who you are, you need to develop a sense of self. A large part of that is learning where you fit into the story of your country or the global community in the grand scheme of things. History tells you the story of how your nation, city, or community came to be what it is today. It tells you where your ancestors came from and tells you who they were. Most importantly of all, it gives you the ability to spot (and appreciate) the legacies you may have inherited from them. It is no wonder that websites like are so popular. Knowing the history of their family is particularly important to some people in finding a sense of identity.

German Immigrants to America in the 1800s
German Immigrants to America in the 1800s

3. History helps us learn to understand other people.

History isn’t just an essential introduction to your own country, ethnic heritage, and ancestry. It’s also a valuable tool when it comes to understanding those who are different from us. Global, national, and regional history books help us understand how other cultures have affected our own, and the basis for international relationships today. It encourages us to develop a greater appreciation for multinational and multicultural influences within our own communities as well – a good reason why everyone should study, in addition to US History, African American history, immigrant history, and so forth, regardless of their own cultural background.

4. History teaches a working understanding of change.

Change is difficult. As humans we prefer our environment to stay the same, to remain the way we are used to it. We find life easier if we can predict what is going to happen; if we can remain in our “comfort zone.” As people react to change, they often feel concern, anger, resentment, or fear. One major cause of this is a fear of the unknown. History helps us better understand how, when, and why change occurs (or should be looked for) on a larger scale. It can also provide us with examples of how people in the past successfully navigated change in their lives.

Roman Philosopher Marcus Cicero
Roman Philosopher Marcus Cicero

5. History gives us the tools we need to be decent citizens.

Good citizens are always informed citizens, and no one can consider himself to be an informed citizen without a working knowledge of history. This is the case whether we’re talking about our role in our community or our nation. The Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero said, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.” If you do not know what happened before your time, if you do not have any role models, if you do not understand the issues and know what you stand for, you will soon be used, manipulated, and ignored as not worth listening to. History helps us become better voters and more effective members of any type of society. It helps put us in a position to better inform others as well.

6. History makes us better decision makers.

“Those that do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Those words, first spoken by George Santayana, are still relevant today because of the timeless truth they express. History gives us the opportunity to learn from past mistakes. It helps us understand the many reasons why people may behave the way they do. As a result, it helps us become more compassionate as people and more impartial as decision makers. In the Jewish community, they pray that another Holocaust will never happen to any group of people. Because of their suffering, they have learned the warning signs leading up to such a horror. Because of a knowledge of history, society has been able to take these warning signs and fight against them when they see them in the present day. Knowing what events led up to a significant event helps us better predict and influence our future.

French Philosopher Voltaire
French Philosopher Voltaire

7. History helps us develop a new level of appreciation for just about everything.

History is more than just the living record of nations, leaders, and wars. It’s also the story of us. It’s packed with tales of how someone stood up for what they believed in, or died for love, or worked hard to make their dreams come true. All those things are concepts we can relate to and inspiring to know that the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King did also. History, however, is more than just the record of nations, leaders, and wars. It’s also the story of us. Almost 1800 years after Cicero, the French philosopher Voltaire said, "History never repeats itself, Man always does." Perhaps this is because Man through the ages has failed to learn the lessons of history.

We hope you found today’s post interesting, informative, and hopefully it made you think about living history. For those who are already involved in the hobby, please take the time to comment below with your thoughts on what we posted. For those who are just beginning to think about getting started on the hobby, we hope this gives you some useful information and we invite you to contact us with any questions you may have. Please join us again in two weeks as we switch back to our regular posts on society and culture in the late-18th and early-19th century.

While you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to subscribe to our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.

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