I’ve never really been a big fan of history. Drawing pictures of Columbus sailing across oceans while in elementary school, giving presentations to explain the birth of religions in middle school, and writing research papers about social issues that I was not encountering during high school, all weren’t enjoyable. Thus, the significance of learning the history never really clicked for me. They seemed like a burden and I remember complaining to my parents and friends about having to learn about things that happened so long ago; I never understood why we spent so much time in school learning about the past. Living away from home for the past few months, relying on myself for my basic needs – food, sleep and personal hygiene – and taking college courses with hundreds of my peers has allowed me to understand how I am who I am because of my personal history. I also see that what I am doing right now is going to impact the rest of my life.
Sitting at this year’s Thanksgiving table with family, I realized I am starting to appreciate history. I was able to understand the importance of certain stories shared by my elders by paying attention to how their experiences were significant to them. I made connections between classes I’m taking and realized the value of learning from our past and how it affects today. It was as if Edmund Burke was sitting at the table with me and saying, “see?”
Thinking about this further, saying that I’ve never been a fan of history is false. Maybe it’s the same for other young people like me. Maybe it’s because I associate “history” with reading textbooks, studying the works of philosophers, or watching documentaries. I now see that learning about the past and appreciating the effect of historical events can be so much more than that. History can include learning how to swing a golf club by your grandfather, driving lessons from an instructor, asking for class enrollment suggestions from an older student, or even as simple as listening to someone tell you about their week. Burke states that we get political knowledge by looking at what people have done before us (The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, (Oxford, 1989), p. 57, p. 111). However, his concept extends to other parts of life, not just political aspects. We can use his concepts to understand just about every part of life from sociological behaviors to health and fitness knowledge.
If we can learn about our past we should not repeat mistakes. We can build upon what happened once, increase our understanding of how or why it is now a part of history, and then deal with similar events differently the second time around. Advances in technology have allowed more people in more parts of the world to become educated, which should lead to more successful and fulfilling lives for those who are taught. Additionally, social media is one of the most useful tools for sharing information. When information is posted by individuals to their own accounts without being filtered by mainstream media, and instantaneously delivered to the palms of the hands of everyone connected to the sender, and then delivered again to others, societal events become accessible to nearly everyone on the planet. Staying on top of current events is an obligation we all have to avoid repeating things we know do not work.
There are many critics willing to discuss the dangers of being constantly logged in to Facebook or Twitter, but they ignore that social media is not just for sharing photos and memories with friends. Social media connections can introduce new topics or events that might’ve been missed, but shouldn’t be. For example, when I recently logged into Facebook I learned that the International Space Station just created its first 3D printer-generated object. I can easily gather information about ISIS when I log in to my Twitter account. Regardless of how information is delivered, we all have a duty to learn how and why something happened. Connecting that information to current events will help achieve societal progress in the future and, more importantly, will teach those who live here after us. For example, Burke examined concepts that the French revolutionaries used and tried to understand the reason behind actions and events. It may be obvious that every individual action has its purpose, but reason is also “collective and cumulative,” and the results eventually become history (p. 79. 88, 102). We have a social contract with prior generations who set the table for the current generation, and we can meet our obligation to flourish by remembering how we got to where we are. Progress can be achieved and we can fulfill our duty to leave society in a better place for our future generations by repeating the cycle. Contributions by current members of society may lead to extreme changes, and some change may be difficult to achieve, but, Burke believed that incremental change is sure to occur and will have a lasting effect.
Burke and Mill have explained how established customs help us know how to live our lives. Taking their ideas another step forward, some things do not transfer from generation to generation, older customs may not have a place in modern society, and yesterday’s values may not be needed or wanted in more current times. Individuals should be able to determine what is valuable to them, and those determinations can be made more easily due to the volume of historical information now available.
History is more than just documents, textbooks, and artifacts left behind. It’s what happens in our lives today, re-examined tomorrow. If injustices occurred last week, it is history that cannot be ignored and should be examined carefully to prevent the same things from occurring again this week. Taking advantage of the opportunity to share more stories, using initiative to learn in new ways and meeting new people who have ideas with a different perspective is what learning history is all about. Use Facebook and Twitter to search for news, find a Ted Talk that expands your way of thinking, sit down and talk with your neighbor, call your grandfather or read a newspaper. No matter the method, I encourage you to find the time to learn about our past, update yourself on the current frequently and with a passion, think about your daily experiences, and become a fan of your own history.