Historical Context Informs Contemporary Issues

I’m sure we can all recall trudging down the hallway in high school, dreading going to the inevitable history class. As students struggle to keep their eyes open, the teacher drones on and on about events that happened what feels like eons ago. The American Revolution, the Cold War, the life of Alexander the Great, the invention of the printing press all become jumbled up terms that students store in the back of their minds to supposedly never return to. 

In the moment, you were probably wondering why you would ever need to remember such trivial facts that happened so long ago.  The truth is that history does matter.  In fact, history matters more so today than ever before.  The philosopher George Santayana wisely said that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sure, this might sound like an exaggeration of the truth or even a bit trite. However, what you might have once considered trivial knowledge is an important part of our identities. The events of the past have shaped us into the people we are today.

When we look at history, we examine historical documents, individuals’ actions and the outcomes of events through a modern lens, extrapolating motives, causes and effects. Take for example the 20th Century, years fraught with war, widespread panic and political changes, but also wealth, prosperity and important social change. Taking a closer look at the 20th Century you could focus on the major wars such as the First World War. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Europe was a dominating world power in every sense of the word. Military prowess, intellectual ideas and artistic endeavors were all being sent forth from the cultural powerhouse of Europe. In addition to all of these advancements, peace had long been enjoyed. 

Thus, when war broke out across the continent, it came as a shock to many. From this, Europeans learned firsthand that the human instinct of greed always outweighs the need or desire for peace. The whole world, which had long enjoyed peace, suddenly came to the realization that decades of amity did not constitute eternal harmony.

So, when you think about history, I encourage you to remember that what you’re learning is valuable.”

Take another example — the Great Depression, which struck the United States beginning in October 1929. How can we learn from the hardships that Americans faced nearly 100 years ago? At the time, the majority of Americans were rather conservative in choosing to support political candidates who promised stability rather than a progressive agenda. As the Great Depression plummeted the U.S. economy, everyday Americans were forced to adapt to a new, more frugal lifestyle. Herbert Hoover, a Republican, was president at the outset of the Depression, however, opinions soon changed when it was time for presidential elections.

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat from New York, ascended to the presidency. FDR’s calming presence through fireside chats and sweeping progressive governmental reforms packaged in the New Deal were completely different from Hoover’s more conservative approach to government. As Americans were experiencing financial hardship, they tended to support policies and candidates who were against their previously held values and stances. Although this may seem like dismissable information, when taken into context, this historical occurrence can predict how Americans (and other people across the world) today may react to sudden hardship.

So, when you think about history, I encourage you to remember that what you’re learning is valuable. We know that history is a cyclical process and what once occurred is bound to happen once again. That’s why history and historians who examine the past are so crucial to our understanding of the present. 

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Scottish historian Niall Ferguson: “The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril.”