Many a Disaffected Teen, slumped in a chair too small, has asked this question, so we'd better ask it too.
Love of history lives in people like an instinct. Take any ancient culture and see how history is cherished. The genealogy is learned and recited on formal occasions. The knowledge is guarded and passed on through the generations in ritualised ways.
At times though, a people's instinct for history can seem almost extinguished. When the first settlers came to the new world for example - New Zealand, America, Australia - history did not seem so important. Life was 'down to earth' - digging and ditching to scrape a living. Nostalgia there must have been for the ways of the Old Country, and clubs sprang up that echoed those left behind, but essentially people were adrift in a place where they saw no history. In schools they taught the history of the Old Country, the kings and queens, the famous battles. The history of the ancient culture around them felt too alien to be helpful but the history of the Old Country had become irrelevant.
It seemed a miraculous thing when a little history began to accumulate in the new country. And as it did, the newcomers began to appreciate the history that resided already in the land. Now there is almost a frenzy for history. People are scratching the dirt off their forgotten family forbears and absorbing history as never before. Plaques are going up to commemorate significant events and famous lives. Houses are being restored. Every town wants to celebrate its participation in the past. Auckland has its annual Heritage Week while Oamaru touts itself as a Victorian Town at Work and holds annual Victorian Heritage celebrations. Other towns have constructed Writers Walks and restored some of their earliest homes.
Disaffected Teen: But what's the point?
History connects you with the past and informs the present.
Disaffected Teen: Yes but what's so good about being connected with the past?
On a spiritual level it's a way of experiencing what Buddhists call interconnectedness. If you can imagine the reality of life for people in times past, you can unite present and past. This is often easier to achieve in the first instance by studying the lives of your own forebears. You will see their existence as continuous and one with yours. Time and space lose meaning. All is one. You have a deep, satisfying sense of everything being connected and interconnected. I think this is what the instinct for history is all about and why we have it.
On a practical level it shows how people have coped in the past and can help us cope with the present. In George Santayana's famous words, 'Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.' Unfortunately the instinct for learning from history is weak and so we repeat the same mistakes again and again. Humankind lurches from fanatical intolerance to tolerance back to fanatical intolerance. The wisdom of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed et al is set aside. The South Sea Bubble is forgotten. The annihilation of the Easter Islanders is unknown. The charge of the Light Brigade is as if it never was. This is heartbreaking for historians.
But sometimes not. Education, combined with a positive value on history, offers the possibility of escape from the treadmill of mindless repetition. In countries that have achieved democracy organically, rather than having it thrust upon them, people understand the importance of participating in their governance and of maintaining a peaceful way of changing their leaders.
Today there are many websites looking at how lessons can be learned from history. In Historian's World you can find a list of them. One [run by businessmen] looks at what history can teach us about Project Management, starting with the Great Pyramids at Giza and moving on to the fate of the Titanic. Another praises biographies as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of what led people such as Bell and Isaac Newton to their discoveries and inventions.
When there is a history to go back to, we can learn, however belatedly, its lessons. Take the 1980s when we seemed to want to forget almost every lesson our mothers ever taught us about conservation, healthy diet, valuing the small and beautiful, the deeper contentment of spiritual as against material living. Now we are being forced to consider the planet, these lessons come back to us. We have a template for a simpler lifestyle which we can develop and refine for our times. The knowledge of the past can help us find our way again.
Disaffected Teen: Groovy!
You must always know the past, for there is no real Was, there is only Is.