Can history teach us lessons?

Elle Fang – Year 13 Historian

Outstanding current Year 13 history student Elle Fang recently entered the New College of Humanities (NCH) essay competition. Her excellent essay exploring the contemporary relevance and role of historical study was Highly Commended in the History group; it was one of only four to win a category prize from a shortlist of ten. As the NCH note, “[o]ur selection of essay titles engages across a broad range of humanities and social sciences topics and we look forward to receiving entries from talented and intellectually curious students who show passion and academic potential in the humanities and social sciences.” Mr Dodd (TGJ Staff Editor)

Throughout the process of studying the discipline, it is inevitable that many individuals studying History have been asked as to why they would choose to study a seemingly ‘dead’ subject. The very use of the word ‘dead’ implies that History has no use in modern society and thus should not be studied, simply under the explanation that “it’s all in the past” and that individuals should only look to the future, highlighting the importance of scientific and political advancement over the teachings of History. However, many overlook the fact that the endeavours of modern science and similar disciplines, such as medicine and economics, have grown and developed over hundreds upon thousands of years of History. The work of various individuals and the growth of human societies over the course of History is a rich, interwoven development that has resulted in a modern era that celebrates stability and human longevity; although it is clear that we still have a long way to go before all societies across the globe can celebrate them. Despite this, it appears that the humans of the modern world, particularly those of developed countries, have taken their privileged lives for granted and thus ignored the significance that History has had over the sculpting of today.

Firstly, to answer this question, the meaning of what History is must be understood, and how supporters of the study of History integrate historical teachings into the world today. In short, History is the study of social, political and economic changes that have occurred during and as a result of events in the past. From an educational standpoint, History is widely regarded as a facilitating subject in countries across the world, able to complement both the analytical nature of literature and philosophy as well as the logical nature of sciences such as biology and psychology. The study of History includes the analysis of sources that have been preserved over time and this causes many different viewpoints to be held regarding particular past events and individuals. When one analyses a source, be it a piece of writing, a photograph or a painting, one must always consider the many factors that have affected how the source was created. For example, who the originator was, where the source was created and when the source was created. Factors like these must all be taken into consideration when analysing a historical source. The viewpoint of an individual greatly affects how a piece of work can be formed and the external surroundings of the individual (for example, whether or not they were forced to create the pieces of work by oppressors) can also play a role in whether or not the source is valuable towards historians. As a result, countless interpretations of a single source can be formulated which leads to many different viewpoints towards historical eras. This means that History is never black and white. What one historian may see as true, another historian may see as false. Thus, History nurtures flexible thinking within individuals, which proves useful in such complicated modern societies.

The idea of thinking around corners is also applicable to the world of science, of which History has helped develop. In fact, world historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that History began during the Cognitive Revolution seventy thousand years ago, when History overtook Biology in order to explain the behaviours and interactions of humans. History was born out of Science, yet History offers many lessons that can be applied to the world of Science. For example, the Renaissance occurred in the mid-fifteenth century, starting in Italy and spreading throughout the rest of Europe. This ‘Rebirth’ gave way to a period where new discoveries were formed in both the scientific world and the artistic world, many which have been developed on over the course of History and have eventually culminated in the wonders and successes of modern science today. Thus, it is clear that the Renaissance has taught us the valuable lesson that the human instinct of curiosity and the testing of new ideas and theories drives forward innovation to ensure a higher quality of life for all. For example, the Renaissance’s emergence pushed back many beliefs of the Middle Ages, where people believed in the sacred nature of the human body as a result of Christianity’s influence in Europe at the time. As a result, medicine was mostly built on supernatural beliefs which usually did little to treat the ailment itself. However, the Renaissance saw great strides in the field of human anatomy as individuals began to dissect cadavers in order to truly reveal the structure of the human body. One of the most well-known individuals in the Medical Renaissance was Andreas Vesalius, who dissected the bodies of criminals and revealed many features of the human body, disproving the past assumptions of individuals such as Galen, who built his knowledge of human anatomy on the dissections of animals. It was also worth noting that Vesalius’s book, ‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’, was published in 1543 and the mass distribution of his discoveries was only made possible through the introduction of the printing press to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg over a century prior. Without the printing press, Vesalius’s magnum opus would not have had the potential to revolutionise the world of anatomy and medicine, highlighting the inevitable intertwining of events that History exhibits. Many wonder about how perhaps the smallest of changes in History would have led to different individuals gaining influence, different events happening, and different lessons being learnt from it. This is an especially exhilarating thought when it comes to the history of Science, because those who have professions in the field of science are constantly working towards proving or disproving hypotheses and theories. Therefore, the world of Science relies greatly on the workings of History. Scientists can look towards History to gain inspiration from the curiosities of our ancestors and apply a flexible way of testing new theories and ideas.

Not only does History pave the way for flexible thinking and scientific innovation, but History also teaches us lessons regarding the social inequalities that occur in human history. Thus, lessons can be learnt from History about the importance of social equality and the devastating consequences if people show ill regard towards others on the basis of factors such as gender, race or socioeconomic status. A common example of the atrocities of social inequality was the events of the Holocaust, which lasted from 1941 until 1945 and reinforced the poisonous nature of fascism and geopolitical instability following the First World War. The Nazi party rose to power as a result of the diktat imposed on Germany through the Treaty of Versailles, which had caused hyperinflation within the country due to the reparations. Many Germans found their savings becoming worthless overnight and many became unemployed, consequently finding it difficult to provide for themselves and their families. Thus, the Nazi Party’s promise to liberate Germany from the Treaty of Versailles and provide Germans with work and bread proved appealing to the citizens. This highlights the lesson that the consequences of wars often don’t impact on the political leaders that started the conflicts, but the innocent civilians who are left with displaced lives, crumbling infrastructure and, most devastatingly of all, human losses due to deaths caused by the conflicts. Perhaps if this lesson from History is applied to modern day, then people in developed countries will be more understanding of the scale of suffering that migrants fleeing war-torn countries have faced. Under such suffering, History has shown that citizens will become more susceptible to supporting political parties with extreme values, and this is true for Germany post-World War One. Even before becoming the leader of the party, Hitler made his personal beliefs explicitly clear via the publication of his book ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1925, written during his imprisonment following the Munich Putsch. Upon the Nazi party’s rise to power, the ‘undesirables’ of society were sent to concentration and extermination camps, resulting in one of the most infamous cases of mass genocide in History. By the end of the war, around six million Jewish people had died in German-occupied Europe. Despite the lesson that History taught to the world regarding the dangers of fascism, many fascist groups still exist in Western countries today, coupled with the rise of neo-Nazism. These modern fascists criticise the liberal attitudes of individuals and political parties, arguing that the left restricts the right to freedom of speech. However, it is evident that the past atrocities that have occurred throughout History have taught us a lesson that all should appreciate – that discrimination of any kind is detrimental towards the lives of many human beings. In the arguably divisive world of politics today, it is important that we remember the ghosts that History has left us in terms of the effects of human hatred against one another. Not only should we remember them, but we should learn from them and thus avoid these past abominations, working together towards an even more stable and compassionate future.

To conclude, although the nature of the study of History means that countless interpretations and views are formed regarding historical events, one cannot deny the valuable lessons that the discipline teaches us all today. It is right to be sceptical and it is right to question the opinions of others, reinforcing the benefits of flexible thinking and active debate. History never was, and will never be, a ‘dead’ subject.  History has shaped the world that we live today, leaving us to study historical events and learn from them in our movement forward as the human race, so that when our descendants learn about the start of the twenty-first century in many years’ time, they can see a society that learns from its mistakes and moves confidently into a world of innovation and consideration.

Elle Fang

References

[1] Penelope J. Corfield. (2008). ‘All people are living histories- which is why history matters’. Available at: https://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html (Accessed 23rd January, 2019)

[2] Marek H. Dominiczak. (2013). ’Andreas Vesalius – His Science, Teaching, and Exceptional Books’. Available at: http://clinchem.aaccjnls.org/content/59/11/1687 (Accessed 24th January, 2019)

[3] Hellmut E. Lehmann-Haupt. (2018). ‘Johannes Gutenberg’. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Johannes-Gutenberg (Accessed 24th January, 2019)

[4] Yuval Noah Harari. (2011). ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’. 3rd edition. London: Vintage

[5] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2014). ‘Introduction to the Holocaust’. Available at: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust (Accessed 24th January, 2019)

[6] Adam Jones. (2019). ’Nazi Persecution’. Available at: https://www.hmd.org.uk/learn-about-the-holocaust-and-genocides/nazi-persecution/ (Accessed 27th January, 2019)

[7] History.com Editors. (2009). ‘Adolf Hitler’. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/adolf-hitler-1 (Accessed 27th January, 2019)

[8] Natalie Wynn. (2017). ‘Decrypting the Alt-Right’. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx4BVGPkdzk (Accessed 27th January, 2019)

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