History, Who Needs It?

by Derrick G. Jeter

In 1960, soul singer, Sam Cooke released an album in which the title song, Wonderful World, became an icon of American music. The lyrics include this catchy line: “Don’t know much about history.” Ironically, when Cooke penned that line in 1959 he probably knew more about history than the average American graduate of some of our leading universities does today. History has been consigned to the dustbin in our educational system. Perhaps educators and administrators have taken the position of Ambrose Bierce, who defined has as “An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”[1]

Some truth may be found in Bierce’s cynicism, yet his case is overstated. The truth is we’ve lost sight of why historic knowledge is important. In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy the watchword is “remember.” Moses wrote to a new generation of Hebrews—those not born in Egyptian slavery but during the wilderness wandering—who were about to enter into a land that had been promised to them by God. Moses wanted to ground them in their history; to remind them of their past and how God had delivered them from oppression and sustained them through the desert. This memory was imperative because the land they were to step foot in was hostile to their God and way of life—to their very existence; they would need to keep faith with God if they were to succeed militarily, culturally, and most importantly spiritually.

The need to remember our own history is not that dissimilar. Only the continuation and vitality of America as a free nation rests upon our collective memory. Of course, when put into such stark light the need to keep the torch of historic knowledge burning brightly in each new generation takes on a new and urgent meaning. That’s why the following five points serve as matches to keep the torch ever lit.

First, history is the plumb line of truth.

I’ve written an article about this (“History, the Plumb Line of Truth”), but it bears repeating: if we fail in our understanding of history we endanger ourselves to the demagoguery of those who would distort history in order to manipulate the uninformed and ignorant. History carries with it power and authority; for this reason, many attempt to rewrite and skew it to favor their point of view. This is why the Chinese philosopher, Confucius said, “Being fond of truth, I am an admirer of antiquity.”[2]

Second, history is memory’s monument.

Biology treats human beings as objects of nature; philosophy treats human beings as objects of reason; sociology treats human beings as objects of society; history, however, treats human beings, not as objects, but as subjects—the source of study. Because we are history’s subjects, history becomes our story—the record that we have passed this way, written on memory’s monument. To forget is to “tear down” this monument and “wander in unfamiliar country . . . a sterile wasteland.”[3] But to know our story tells us who we are and supplies the seeds of who we can become. History roots us and gives us stability. Or as the fictional John Quincy Adams so beautifully said in the climactic scene in Amistad, “who we are is who we were.”[4]

Third, history is a moral mentor.

To remain ignorant of the past is to remain immature—a child. Because history’s subject is humanity, it teaches that we are foolish and frail, but also at times shrewd and strong. History shows us the path to maturity by revealing the consequences of our actions, whether for evil or for good. If we are to grow up, however, we must learn and apply history’s wisdom. If we fail to heed history’s lessons “we flee the judgment of the dead” and the wasteland in which we’ll wander will leave us with “utterly barren soul[s].”[5]

Fourth, history is reality’s clear eyed stare.

History provides perspective—“that rare gift of vision that allows us to see both good and evil for what they really are without becoming starry-eyed or cynical.”[6] At any given point on history’s timeline we can find times that were worse and, in some cases, better than our own time. But in each case, history gives us a sense of equilibrium and balance. This is important because without the perspective history provides we would view our times either through rose colored glasses or with an evil eye—both are distortions and can lead to frivolous or anxious lives.

Fifth, history is future’s compass.

It has been said that “the past is prologue,” meaning that what has come before is a precursor to what is to follow. This is a true statement, if for no other reason than the fact that history deals with humanity, and humans have not changed since the fall in the garden (Genesis 3). It is within our nature to sin, and if we do not learn history’s lessons we will make the same dreadful decisions our forefathers did. If we desire to seek a different course for the future we must learn from the past, for the further backward you look the further forward you see. The future is found in the past, so the way forward is the way back.

Other reasons could be articulated to argue for the importance of knowing history, but these five points are sufficient to answer the question of who needs history—we all do!

President Kennedy commented on the consequence of historic memory when he wrote: “American history is not something dead and over. It is always alive, always growing, always unfinished—and every American today has his own contribution to make to the great fabric of tradition and hope which binds all Americans, dead and living and yet to be born in a common faith and a common destiny.”[7] It is this fabric of tradition and hope, binding us to that common faith, which has become shabby and frayed around the edges. If we fail to repair this fabric it will unravel and most assuredly we shall share a common destiny—the loss of our country.

Our greatest danger lies not from without, but from within. The surest way to destroy a country is from the inside; once inside the surest way to destroy it is by destroying its memory—its history.

History, who needs it? You do. I do. The country does.

[1] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007), “history.”

[2] Confucius, The Analects, 7.1, trans. Raymond Dawson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 24.

[3] Chuck Colson, The Enduring Revolution: The Battle to Change the Human Heart (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour & Co., 1996), 47

[4] Amistad, “The Hero,” DVD, directed by Steven Spielberg (Universal City, Cal.: DreamWorks, 1999).

[5] Colson, The Enduring Revolution, 47.

[6] Derrick G. Jeter, Daniel, Volume 1: God’s Man for the Moment Bible Companion (Plano, Tex.: IFL Publishing, 2009), 87.

[7] John F. Kennedy, “JFK on Our Nation’s Memory,” reprint, American Heritage, vol. 59, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 17.