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Accumulation and the Past

April 17, 2013

Are you an armchair historian? An avid reader of times gone by?

Perhaps you are the learned figure who answers ‘yes’ to the above. Most likely you’re not though – how many people study history outside of their mandatory schoolwork? A chillingly small number.

Need it be first said that reading is one of the main avenues for learning about the past? These figures (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/14/4-million-uk-adults-never-read-books) from the UK are troubling – 26% of adults don’t enjoy reading ‘very much’ , 40% prefer other activities and 29% of respondents cited time as a problem. This is however very nice in comparison to a recent poll in the US (http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/12/27/e-book-reading-jumps-print-book-reading-declines/) where it is shown that 25% of Americans over 16 haven’t read a book in the past year. Frightening; I digress though.

Of course, many people might think their views against historical inquiry are somehow justified. They recall a politically focused history curriculum at school; they think of memorisation of dates and names, instead of real understanding. They don’t realise what history is. Historical study rests upon a broad range of other disciplines – explaining the actions of the past – human actions – is never easy! History is a window into social phenomena, law, economics, the formation of the world as it is today and so, so much more. How could it not be? Yesterday is tomorrow’s history! Do we declare the world a simple place, devoid of complexity? No! So why the boring view towards history?

History can teach us so much. Let us learn from our ancestors. Let us learn what we can, so that we can use the insights of the past to inform the future. Great men and women have gone before us and their virtues should be realised, so that we can implement their virtues in our lives.

This is normally the time when somebody goes on to say something like ‘We should learn from our ancestors? Bah! They were racist, chauvinist fools.’ It’s true that our ancestors exhibited some qualities that we consider repugnant in our supposedly enlightened state. But let us realise that in the study of our ancestors we are not there to imitate them, but to learn. Let us take that which is good from the past and incorporate it into the present; let us retain the good, and discard the horrid. In time, we shall improve, resting evermore upon the foundations of our forebears.

In fact, this is rather like a societal synthesis – we refine our views as new knowledge (experiences and events) comes in. Our synthesis will lose it’s quality if we simply discard great swathes of experience.

Furthermore, is there any real difference between learning from our ancestors as opposed to asking our parents? Should be ban teachers’ anecdotes in schools? Nobody would suggest that! And yet… some of us convince ourselves of the futility of history. Let us be clear that ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’ Now, yours truly is firmly of the belief that there is something new under the sun, although not much. However, so much of what we face is simply an old challenge reincarnated.

In our lives we seek out help from others. Perhaps we could learn what there is to know through our own hard work and self-discovery, yet it’s often cheaper and less time consuming to profit from the use of an expert; many of us simply accept things as being the case, without knowing why something is the case. The experiences and knowledge of others is an invaluable resource to us.

Let us look at the largest store of experience and knowledge in this world – the past; history.

 

A Side Note

Some of you may have noted that this article focused on personal insights from history; micro insights. Rest assured though that we are well aware of the macro implications of history! How could we have evidence to support theories without the past? We’ll discuss a multitude of macro instances in the near future, rest assured!

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