Why History Is Important
Before the cemetery tour I led the other day, someone commented, “What’s your tour about? My daughter doesn’t want to go if it’s about dates and who was married to who.”
People have been turned off by history relayed through dry, dusty details. Too bad. History is rich and informative, and crammed with better stories than I could make up.
We could blame this dislike of history on the musty textbooks some of us remember or on the mandated memorization of dates and events.
In the Alberta schools’ curriculum (2005 by Alberta Education), the subject of history has been replaced with historical thinking. What’s that? According to Alberta Education, it’s this: “Historical thinking is a process whereby students are challenged to rethink assumptions about the past and to reimagine both the present and the future.”
A history component is included in the Alberta curriculum’s Social Sciences: “The social sciences 20-30 program is intended to complement the Alberta social studies program by encouraging increased understanding of ‘humans and their world.’”
This reads as if it’s written for aliens studying the habits of humans. Social sciences are elective courses, not core courses.
History is still important. Here’s why:
History brings the present into perspective
The past makes the present seem like not such a big deal. It’s easy to feel that our generation is the only one to have lived in turbulent times and to have seen so many changes. It’s easy to feel that no others have experienced what we’re experiencing.
History bridges that gap. When we hear or read the stories of those who came before, we recognize their pain and suffering, their successes and happiness. Sure, our ancestors lived in different times, but they experienced living through the same emotional lenses that we do.
No matter what we’re going through, someone’s been there before. Our lives are unique and our lives are similar. History teaches us that life is paradoxical. The road before us is well-trod, though others traveled it differently.
History makes us feel connected
We are connected to history by our shared human experience. Throughout human history, people have experienced joys and sorrows. People have had religion, chores and dalliances. People have raised children, raised crops and raised hell.
All those who came before are joined to us through our common life experiences. History shows us how to feel connected to those who lived before. In this way, history shows us how to feel a connection with those living now.
History can help us avoid repeating mistakes
Learning about past human follies can steer us toward reform. For example, we know now that colonization doesn’t end well for everybody, that war causes death and destruction, and that the earth’s resources and resiliency are not finite.
Where was I going with this? Right. History gives us the opportunity to learn from past mistakes. It does not guarantee that we will learn. In fact, history tells us that, typically, we do not learn from history.
History can help us avoid repeating mistakes if we choose to.
History encourages us with stories of triumph
History lifts us with stories of triumph. When life gets tough, we can look to the struggles and successes of our ancestors to keep us going. In the 1930s, my very pregnant grandmother ended up in a December snowbank when the horse-drawn cutter taking her to the hospital to give birth, tipped over. I think about this when my photos are slowly uploading to Facebook.
Years ago, I worked as a costumed interpreter at Heritage Park in Calgary. This job placed me in the role of my ancestors for eight hours a day. It made me think about the strength of those pioneers and the hardships they endured.
They persevered, breaking land, succumbing to influenza, bearing children at home, and chopping wood and hauling water. They lived through howling prairie winters in sod houses and swept those dirt floors during the summers. That interpreter job still makes me grateful for my washer and dryer.
With its stories, history reassures us that no matter what mountain we face, it’s been climbed before.
History is alive
Fortunately, history is alive and all around us. There’s plenty that any of us can do today to explore it. Visit a local museum. If you enjoy your visit, consider volunteering some time to share the past with others.
Read your region’s local history books. These are both informative and deliciously voyeuristic. Once you open it, your nose will be stuck for hours in that heavy book full of tantalizing details.
Did you like reading the history book? Visit your local library. You’ll find the unexpected there. I always do, and I’m always pleasantly surprised.
Do your own online research. Join one of those virtual genealogy groups or just Google topics of historical interest.
Lastly, talk to your older relatives. Ask them to show you photographs and to tell you the stories. Nothing makes history come alive better than hearing the tales straight from the source.
History is not dead. Let’s get to know it and discover what we can still learn from it.