Why Study History? Because “WTF?” is a Bad Alternative Question.

Sane folks study history because they know how important it is to understand human behavior and learn from experience.   We ought to understand the psychological imprint on our society so that we might work with it to get a clearer picture of reality and thereby learn how to live freer and more harmonious lives together. Unfortunately, the instability and terror in the world today feels like deja vu all over again. Worse, the serious study of history in our schools and universities has been diluted and downgraded for decades now. Not good.

According to historian Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius (whose superb lecture series “Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century” I recommended in a previous post) wars create psychological transformations that stay with a society and a civilization.  That’s a chilling thought.  Because it’s not enough to try to understand war itself.  We need to understand the human psychology that is both cause and effect of human conflict.  With this in mind, please listen to Professor Liulevicius speak brilliantly about the impact of World War I in the clip below:

 He notes: “The First World War should have taught us something about the intensity of emotions that can seize entire peoples, nations, and societies when they’re in the grip of crisis conditions.  The tragedy of the First World War was so great, so extensive, so huge in scale, that afterwards people found it difficult to wrap their minds around the motivations that led people to fight, kill and die for a cause.”

As the philosopher George Santanyana stated: “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I think we should all be able to understand this on a very personal level. Just imagine you have no clear memory of where you have been in life. You have no known experiences that can direct your intentions.  Only intense emotion.  Where would you go?  What would you do? Chances are, you’d just grope around blindly and live the proverbial brutish life that ignorance so often affords those detached from reality.  You’d mimic others. You’d be great fodder for demagogues. This ignorance of experience and psychology promises insanity and misery.  It also causes us to lose touch with our shared humanity as we descend into our collective dementia.

Demagogues thrive on the ignorance of history because it’s so effective in preventing clear thinking and civil discourse that puts a check on their power.  They also revise and distort the historical record until not much is left of it. They tend to create crises, and then exploit those crises.  And afterwards the survivors are left among the ruins, bewildered. Some wail in innocence.  Those who saw it coming may cocoon themselves.  Many indulge more in blind emotions — of vengeance and rage — than in sober thought.  The few Cassandras who tried to raise warning flags will either be lost to the writing of that history, or if victorious like Churchill, write it.

But too many will scratch their heads with nothing better to say than “WTF?”

That’s why we must study history.

 

 

Print Friendly