How important is it to have a strong knowledge of history?

Some members of my family aren’t the most, shall we say, historically inclined, in that they don’t particularly care for history nor do they really see a point in having any sort of large knowledge base of historical events. Obviously, this negative attitude towards history isn’t relegated to my family; I’ve encountered many people over the years who have felt similarly about the subject. For my own part, I’ve always loved history (particularly ancient history of all things) and I’m consistently able to impress my folks and others with the historical knowledge that I’ve been able to retain over the years.

The question, then, is just how important is it to have a strong knowledge of history? To what extent is being aware of past events necessary in order to function in the modern world?

I think that the stock argument (or at least the argument that was always made by the past teachers of mine that actually addressed this issue) is that it’s important to learn about history so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. I definitely believe that that’s a valid standpoint, but could this point of view be expanded even further? Could somebody ever become, I dunno, fundamentally inept in some way if he or she doesn’t have some degree of knowledge of history?

Maybe I’m rambling, but I’ve been thinking about this lately. Is history, to you, something that’s merely interesting to study, or is it something that is absolutely necessary to know about? Why is that?

I think if someone wants to have an informed opinion in regards to politics and current events, it’s important to know history.

How do we know what political positions are dumb and which ones aren’t? Well, one way is to have a good imagination in regards to human behavior. For instance, if the government started up a program that gave tax breaks to people who volunteer in their communities, a reasonable person with a cynical side might imagine a ton of people exploiting this by “volunteering” at their kid’s private school booster events rather than doing something more useful, like picking up trash or mentoring wayward youth.

But other policies can be examined through the lens of history and don’t have to be judged by imagination alone. If a politician suggests we spy on Muslims and put them in internment camps, this might appeal to a person who doesn’t know that we did this exact same thing to Japanese Americans and immigrants during WWII, and that it didn’t do a damn thing but stigmatize people (and make the federal government pay reparations decades later). If a nation decides to institutionalize segregation, then knowing about Jim Crow in the US or apartheid in South Africa can help a person make a judgment about that action. If you relied only on imagination, you might only think of policies from one perspective–your own–rather than the bigger picture, including future ramifications.

Also, a solid foundation in history can teach people the warning signs of upcoming disaster. If more people had remembered what had happened during the years leading up to the Great Depression, perhaps fewer people would have bought houses they couldn’t afford and would have stop gambling their life savings away in the stock market.

Remembering dates and important historical figures isn’t totally useful, IMHO. But wise people remember the lessons embedded in history.

Charles Santayana said it best: “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them”.

I’ve wondered the same thing about certain kinds of history. For instance, some of my experiences of being taught history (e.g. in school) have focused much more on things like wars than I’d have liked. I appreciate that some people find that stuff inherently interesting, but for those of us who don’t, does it really matter what general fought what battle in what location with how many troops? Is that any more useful than reading the sports page from fifty years ago?

I do think that for any area a person cares about, anything they want or need to know about (whether politics or religion or movies or cars), it’s definitely worthwhile studying the history of that thing.

I also think it’s important to learn how people lived and thought and did things in olden times. There’s so much about our own way of life that’s easy to take for granted if you’ve never learned about people who didn’t have what we have or who did things differently. Although detailed, historically accurate fiction set in other times (e.g. Little House on the Priarie) might be just as good as scholarly study.

Actually, it’s George Santayana, but that’s okay as long as you don’t ever refer to him as Charles again. :wink:

I like Karl Marx’s take even better: History repeats itself: First as tragedy, then as farce.

I think it’s instructive to learn history as it’s taught. Focusing on “what really happened,” however, can lead you very far astray from the rest of us. Reality is not always reality-based when the present day is under consideration - when it comes to the past, the legend rules.

People should just watch the History Channel and call it a day. Lots of good learnin’ on that one!

It’s not important at all. The worst mistakes in history have been made by those with a strong knowledge of history. If all of history were fiction (and a large portion of it is), it wouldn’t make any difference. History is like the bible, the true believers will cherry pick anything that supports their opinions and ignore the rest.

When you say a large portion of history is fiction, I hope you’re not referring to The History Channel!

No. Very little of the History Channel has anything to do with history. That part that does, is largely fiction though. Fiction based on historical events is still fiction, and that’s what most of history is. The factual part of history is a bunch of number and contemporaneous reports which are only useful to demonstrate the reporter’s state of mind.

History is very important - a lot of lessons to be learned, and a lot of very interesting people and stories to enrich your life. Heroes to cheer, and villains to boo; triumphs to lift your spirits, and tragedies to make you weep. Every king and president, and every serf and lowlife, is part of history. Wars, treaties, religious movements, election campaigns, inventions, reform, repression, victories and defeats. How can you know where humanity is going if you don’t know where it’s been? I love history and wish everybody else did, too!

I once thought Santayana’s first name was actually Harry.

Then I thought it again.

You must be thinking of Harry Santangelo, the Italian chef from Sacramento.
What he really said was: “Those who forget the pasta are doomed to re-heat it.”

(not my joke)

I’m genuinely curious about this viewpoint - what evidence do you have to suggest that most history (and by that you must mean anything from 50% upwards) is fiction? Do you mean that it’s literally fabricated, that what is taught happened didn’t? Or that the facts of history we do know are put into a narrative that isn’t exactly factual?

We know a huge amount about the events of many periods of history - writing that off as fiction is like dismissing evolution.

That’s two data points right there.

And now I’m corroborating it by quoting you.

What evidence to you have that it isn’t fiction? Totally fabricated? Not in most cases, but no more accurate than your typical docudrama. It is based on peoples biased recollections and/or fabrications, and often embellished after the fact by historians. There’s plenty of facts and figures available, but the backstory is too often merely someone’s opinion, or creative effort.

That of course is absurd. I do not deny the existence of history.

It’s good to know in case you’re ever on Jeopardy!.

I’m not sure how to respond to this. A lot of history is not recollection or people saying “this happened”, it’s a collection of evidence put together by historians to create a picture. Sure, if you rely totally on things like diaries, letters and memoires you run the risk of a fictionalised history. But if you’re reading the personal accounts of multiple people about the same event or individual and there are common themes why would you discount that as not being accurate? Is a witness statement provided in court not evidence? It’s just a recollection, could be totally fabricated.

Example: using your method of thinking we can’t say with any certainty that the great fire of London happened. The vast majority of evidence about it are the personal accounts of individuals and groups which could be fabricated. Yes there is physical evidence of fire, but that could all be coincidental and retrospective explanation of something we believe in. This is an extreme example, but you can do that with any event if you are not willing to take the accounts of people as valid evidence.

Besides, history is only partially made up of such sources. There are objectives facts like physical evidence that is discovered, documentation of events that are not personal recollections (like shipping manifests or charters etc). Again, you can piece these together to form a timeline of something without it being a fanciful recollection.

As for not denying history exists, you seem to be if you claim virtually nothing can be objectively known about history.

I didn’t claim that at all. As I mentioned, there are plenty of facts and figures available. But the history tomes are filled with opinions, conjecture, and fiction. I don’t know why this is such a controversial subject with some. It is akin to fundamentalism. We can learn some things from the study of history, and in the future we’ll have much more accurate information to use, but how many more books about Lincoln do we need for a historical context. The set of facts is not increasing.

Clearly you don’t understand the meaning of the word “fiction” and know nothing about history.

Nearly all history books – especially modern ones – footnote every assertion and can back it up with cites of primary sources. Everything said is documented. Conjecture is kept to a minimum and is always clearly marked as such. Opinions are listed as opinions. And while objectivity is in the eye of the beholder, historians strive to show all sides of an issue, especially when there’s controversy.

Maybe because you are making an unfounded assertion with no facts to back it up, much like a fundamentalist.

Yes, it is. There are always new facts being discovered – diaries, newspaper reports and the like – that were either hidden or overlooked. There are also aspects of even well-covered people that haven’t been discussed before.

You give Lincoln as an example. Yet, Doris Kearns Goodwin showed in Team of Rivals an aspect of his presidency that hasn’t been examined in depth before. Harold Holzer a few years ago wrote a book on his Cooper Union speech, an essential step in his gaining the presidency, and which most Americans know nothing about (and the few that did know of it, interpreted it incorrectly). So even such a well-researched person as Lincoln still has aspects that haven’t been touched upon before.