Why History? (1: Understanding)

This is a little series of posts I’ve been contemplating for a while now, as I considered the question: “Why study history?” in response to what may seem, in recent times in this country, a dearth of importance placed in the subject. Perhaps better put then is the question “Why is history important?” More directly put to me, it has been “Why did you study history?”

I am a graduate of NUIM with a BA in History and Ancient Classics, and an MA in Military History and Strategic Study, so this question is at the heart of my academic past and future aspirations.

Nothing I say here is new. It is all been written before, in ways that are far more effective than my clumsy words. I write this as an exercise for myself, a way to put thoughts that have swirled in my head for over a decade onto paper.

The first point, is that the study of history allows you to achieve a greater understanding of yourself and all aspects of your life. If you are able to understand the past, you can understand your family and how they came to be, your education and how it was structured, your favourite sport and why it is so, your nation and why it acts the way it does, your neighbours and why they act the way they do.

In so many aspects of life, you would do well to understand the past. How can you even begin to comment on the policies of Sinn Fein, without looking at their struggles throughout the decades of the last century? How can we put ourselves between Israel and Palestine, without looking into the deep and tangled web of their animosity through the ages? If the Dail tries to implement gender quotas and division arises, how can we approach the problem without looking back at the history of women in our nation, feminism, electoral equality? How can you study a disease in a lab without looking at the records of when and where and who it struck in our past?

History is a vast repository of societal changes and interactions. Anytime you try and determine why something has happened in the present, you must look backwards for the cause or causes. Sometimes this reach goes only so far as recent history. Frequently it goes further.

History is our great archive of experiment. There are no grand changes or particulars of the human experience that we can study or analyses without taking a look at the historical record. History is our species Petri dish. It is at the core of all that we do, all that makes us do what we do. History may share that burden with other disciplines – anthropology, sociology – but none of them has the scope that the study of history is designed for.

And more than the simple reality of the facts that history provides, history gives us something slightly more fluid: an identity. The shared history of the people of Ireland has shaped me in ways that other influences – my parents, my education, my friends – cannot do. Our national values, our loyalty to the tricolour, comes from that shared history. This is a use of history that is frequently abused, one of its most dangerous applications. Only with correct study of our nations past can we get the full benefit and avoid the traps that bad history can lure us into.

On a smaller level, history places you and your family, through genealogy and the like, firmly within the swirling mix of history’s passing, a basis for your own genetic identity. I am a Costelloe, but that is just a word. Who were the Costelloe’s? Where did they come from? Why did they come here? Who did they love, who did they fight, what did they believe? In essence, what is the landslide of past events, past lives, that brought me to where I am today? Such knowledge may make little direct impact on my present circumstances, but it will allow me to comprehend the significance of those circumstances – and perhaps, educate me in regards to my potential future actions (a thought for a later post).

You cannot achieve this level of understanding without the study of the past. History is the inward magnifying glass, for our species, our nation, our family and ourselves.

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