I have heard it said that the trouble with the younger generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting. As a college history professor, I can attest to the fundamental truth of this observation. When I ask my students to justify this disabling neglect, however, or to explain to me why they have not acquired a mastery of, or even a taste for, history, I am frequently answered with another question: "Why should we?" I answer them this way.
First, we study history because, as Carl Becker noted, one of our highest duties is not to be duped. Among other things, the history of mankind is a narrative of frauds and deceits. A detailed knowledge of the past often carries with it, therefore, an acquaintance with the ways of evil, and this acquaintance, in turn, engenders for us a protection. Knowing what we know from history, we need not fall prey to the same old ploys our fathers did. Providence, in other words, has vouchsafed to us a treasure trove of wisdom, gleaned from thousands of years of experience and thoughtful reflection. We are the privileged heirs of a tradition of insight formed in the crucible of our collective past. This tradition is our hedge against transitory circumstances, imperfect knowledge, and narrow perspective. Or, to put it the other way around, “deficiency in historical perspective leads to the ruinous blunders of ideologues.” 1 To study history is to gain personal access to that invaluable legacy. Historical study properly pursued has the beneficial effect of granting a person the experience and wisdom of age without its accompanying infirmities or inconveniences. In that sense, historical study can serve as an indispensable aid both in living well and in living freely. History can be both a protection and a liberation.
Second, the study of history enables us to make informed predictions about the likely outcome of various possible courses of action. By noting the differing approaches to past problems in situations that closely parallel our own, and by assessing the results of each, we can predict, within limits, the likely consequences of any particular approach to current difficulties. I say "within limits" because I bear in mind Wordsworth's observation that "we see but darkly, even when we look behind us."2 Therefore, while historical study, of its own, can never be an infallible guide for tomorrow and does not enable us to prophesy concerning the future, it can enable us to make knowledgeable and mature short-term predictions. More than two hundred years ago, in his address to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry made this same point: "I know of no way to judge the future," he said, "but by the past." Or, as the White Queen explained to Alice: "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards." In that light, then, history serves to equip us to deal intelligently and vigorously with the future.
Third, not only do we study the past in order to see something of the future, we study the past in order to understand the present. That is, we study the past because someone ought to be interested in (and committed to) finding out the truth about things. Because ideological truth, if it is truth, is not new, and because error is usually old and unoriginal, a thoughtful mastery of the debates of the past serves as a foundation for untangling and resolving contemporary quarrels. Most current philosophical and theological disagreements stem from presuppositions that reach far back into the history of ideas. In that light, Albert Einstein once said that he had only one original idea in his entire life. If true, the implications of that statement are profound. Regardless of how modern we think our problems are, and regardless of how novel we believe our stance toward them might be, the odds are that these arguments, or ones very much like them, have all been argued before, and in much the same way. A great deal of effort has already been expended in solving such problems, and a significant amount of valuable insight has already been expressed on "modern" issues. The ideological expertise of some of the finest minds of the past has been brought to bear on either the very problems that plague us today or on their near relatives. Thus, by schematizing the old debates we not only clarify the current ones, we also enjoy the inestimable privilege of encountering the formative thinkers who shaped the Western World. Of this tremendous deposit of wisdom the Pilgrim Theologian must make the fullest possible use. To do so is not only advisable, it is an inestimable privilege.
Finally, if for no other reason, we study history because it has entertainment value. Unlike some other academic pursuits, history has its own peculiar fascination. People everywhere seem to be buying it, reading it, writing it, and enjoying it. History affords both the excitement of discovery and the satisfaction of acquired mastery. Because of its character as a narrative social science, history can combine in an interesting fashion both the scientist's precision and the storyteller's art. The result of such a union frequently is captivating. Only the incorrigibly obtuse can fail to delight in Huizinga's graphic delineation of the harvest of medieval culture, or in Boswell's Johnson and Bainton's Luther. An almost unavoidable sense of reverence and respect attaches to fondling carefully a delicate 400-year-old book, or to walking where one's grandfather and great grandfather (or even their ancestors) walked and talked, lived and died. The sensitive mind is profoundly moved when it comes face to face with its own roots. The discovery of one's own spiritual heritage or intellectual pedigree is of supreme importance in helping to develop and to define one's identity. This link to the past, which history supplies, allows us also to move back across time and to traverse vast distances in order to experience, however momentarily, something of life in an ancient and otherwise irretrievable world. History is the closest thing to transcendence that most of us will ever enjoy.
But in this fascination and escape lies one of history's dangers. We are not called to live in the past, romantic though it might seem to us. Nor are we granted leave to sit idly by, wistfully longing for some previous age, allegedly golden. Whenever we do so, we have turned from history to nostalgia -- and nostalgia is a failure of nerve. By it we flinch from a daunting present and shrink from an imposing future. Unless our study of history and the wisdom and entertainment it affords can be used to help us deal intelligently and vigorously with our present world, our study has degenerated from an academic discipline to mere sentimentality. Of that there is already enough.
These, then, are the reasons I tell my students we ought to study history. I also tell them that there is one thing better to do with history than to study it, and that is to make it.
1Russell Kirk, The Conservative Constitution (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1990), p. 31.
2William Wordsworth, The Prelude, III, 482-483.