Why History Matters: A Storyteller's Thougts
In the past year, I did something I never thought I'd do - read The Histories, by Herodotus: in many ways, the oldest form of recorded history.
As a storyteller, this made me think about history in a different way and raised several interesting questions: What caused this ancient historian to decide on the concept of a tale of mere facts, so unlike the wild tales that other storytellers were telling?
How did The Histories impact later history books?
And what, when it comes down to it, is the point of a history?
This last question in particular carries a lot of weight with it, and, though some believe that reading history is a dull undertaking that they’ll leave behind the moment they finish high school, the point of history is so much more than memorizing dates—and, in my opinion, at least, the learning of things past should continue long after higher education is finished.
Why? I'm so very glad you asked.
History Illuminates the Past
History illuminates the present like little else. Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to examine traces of the past with none of the story that accompanies it.
Imagine visiting the Coliseum and having no idea of the countless lives sacrificed on that wooden floor; imagine studying the liberty bell in a time when what it rang for had been forgotten.
The past touches the present in so many ways—in statues, in landscapes, in cultures, and in more. History is the thread that weaves these tapestries together and makes experiencing these landmarks all the more meaningful.
History Animates the Past
Contrary to popular opinion, history—at any rate, history as it should be—is not a dull list of dates and names to be memorized and rattled off with no knowledge or interest in the surrounding story.
History is not the date that Constantinople fell; history is the story of how Constantinople—the city that was said never to fall “until the moon was eaten from the sky”----fell the night of a lunar eclipse.
History is not knowing the day Nathan Hale, American patriot, was executed for treason; history is knowing that his last words, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country” were, in fact, the lines from a British play.
History is not knowing Hitler’s full name or the many lieutenants who served under him; history is the story of those Germans who opened their homes to Jews, of the secret passages threading their way through German-occupied territories for these refugees to find shelter, of the children who refused to join Hitler Youth and instead did all they could to love their neighbors.
History is the tale of human motivation, of wreck and ruin, of rise, of tragedies and the glints of hope that survived in them.
History Explains the Past
As any storyteller can tell you, without developing backstories, the present is robbed of much of its meaning. And once history has been studied, then the current state of things will make much more sense.
Without knowing the Native Americans’ tale, what reason is there for the protected areas of the United States?
If the world wars had been forgotten, why would countries spend so much time and energy on inventions made to protect themselves?
Knowing how modern civilizations become what they are today can give much more sense to current situations—and can keep people from repeating the same mistakes that their ancestors made time and time again.
So Does It Matter?
Those are two words that many school children will groan at—but if history was taught as it should be, perhaps they would not.
If history was presented, not as a list of facts to memorize but as a tale that showcased humankind at both its best and at its worst. . . if history classes were times to call back the times of chivalry and challenge students to act as the knights of old. . . if students could see the present through the lenses of their ancestors who fought “for the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods”. . . then maybe it would be clear.
History matters—and without history, the present is robbed of nearly all its meaning.