In answer to the question, why study history:
“The world seemed an odd place, and I wondered how it got that way.”
— Attributed to R.H. Tawney, historian
If you’ve ever wondered about the value of history, you’ve doubtless heard what has become almost a cliché: “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Which makes history sound as if it is cyclical or something. In fact, you can either make your own mistakes and learn from them, or find out the mistakes others have made and learn from them. Of course, the reality is something of a mixture of the two: we learn from the mistakes of others, and still make some new, fresh ones ourselves so we can teach ourselves something.
A better way of thinking of history follows more the words quoted above from R.H. Tawney: all of us have been thrust into a theater two hours into a play, in the middle of the third act. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do if we want to make sense of where we are and what’s going on.
Of course, it’s worse than that. Not only have we been dropped into the play after it’s been going for two hours, we’re expected to hop up on the stage and join in on all the fun.
That’s why a knowledge of history is useful: you know what’s going on, at least a little. You know why those two characters don’t like each other, and why that little fellow is punching that old woman—and so on. You understand why mostly there are no easy or quick solutions to most of the problems, because the quick and easy problems have already been solved—but new ones keep cropping up all the time. And you learn who the good guys and who the bad guys are—and realize that sometimes hero and villain are slippery ideas, one of degrees, and sometimes shifty. And worst of all, that sometimes everyone is a villain and there aren’t any good guys at all. Sometimes you’ll just want to find a place on stage to hide until the next act comes along.