The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is often quoted as “those who fail to learn from the past, repeat it.” It is the lesson of history. If history is not being taught to each generation (our children), then eventually we will raise a generation that “knew not Joseph”, as the book of Exodus puts it. And indeed we have now have an entire generation of American kids, who are now in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s who know nothing about Josef…Josef Stalin and his mass starvations, executions, and imprisonments of the Soviet people in his Siberian slave labor camps. We have whole generations of Americans who know nothing about the genocidal socialist maniacs of the 20th century (Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, the Kim dynasty of North Korea). Now they have stumbled across “socialism” and think it is cool…without knowing its blood-thirsty tyrannical past.
So, it is important to know history, or be condemned to relive its painful lessons. What is the best way to learn history? Watch YouTube videos or just look things up on Wikipedia? You can do that, but of course there are plenty of people with an agenda who skew facts while they are showing their “history lessons.” There are a few things we can do to learn facts with as little a political agenda as possible (everyone has a bias—we just have to recognize that and deal with it).
1. Go to primary sources. That is, read and study the actual documents written by people from that period of history. (I know that primary sources are more than just letters and books, but that’s for another blog.) Instead of reading about the Romans, actually read what they wrote. Read Horace, Terrance, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius. Want to know about ancient China? Chinese history is utterly fascinating. Read “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Read the writings of Confucius or Lao Tzu. What did our Founding Fathers really think about God, government, slavery, or economics? Read what Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson wrote! (They wrote plenty.) What did the ancient Sumerians or medieval Anglo-Saxons think and value? Read the Epic of Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Currently I am reading Homer’s Odyssey, the Confessions of St. Augustine, and Summa Contra Gentiles by Thomas Aquinas. Why? Because I want to know, in their own words, how they saw their world, what they valued, and what lessons they can teach us today. (They teach us much, if we are willing to listen.)
2. Go to the actual sites you are reading about. Travel, if it is possible. If you cannot, then maybe that is where a video can be helpful. It is important to know geography in order to understand and better appreciate the world people lived in, and geography helps us to know why people reacted/responded in the way they did. For example, I never really appreciated Col. Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg until I went there. Man, that is a steep climb up the reverse slope to get to the top! And to charge DOWN that hill with all its boulders is no small feat! I never appreciated the work of Medieval architects and builders until I went up inside the dome of “Il Duomo” in Florence Italy. That place is massive!! How did they build that? They must have been geniuses…as well as very dedicated, devout people. It really transformed my attitude about the people of the Middle Ages.
There are plenty more tips on how to better understand the past, and benefit from it, but those tips will be in the next article (or two)!