The importance of remaining literate in history

I have great respect for the past. If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going. I have respect for the past, but I'm a person of the moment. I'm here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I'm at, then I go forward to the next place.― Maya Angelo (Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons/Google)

An important means of avoiding repetition of errors is realizing them. For example, the Haymarket Affair, which spurred the creation of International Workers Day on May 4, 1986 and weakened Chicago unions, can be a reminder of how groups can become associated with more radical elements of the movement. Similarly, May 3 is the date of another such revolt, except May 3 was the date when a charismatic foreigner who had risen in the army of a powerful European country and manipulated democracy invaded another country. The man in question was Napoleon Buenaparte, or Bonaparte. Furthermore, there are more lessons that can be learned from studying history: May 2 can be seen as a warning about Buenaparte and similar leaders and as a warning to the consequences of resistance. Furthermore, one can learn about the origin of modern institutions, like the fact that the mishandling of 1973 and Yitzhak Rabin’s death led to a distrust of the PA to engage in good-faith trust deals. Also, Robespierre indicates the ability of ambitious knight templars to engage in horrible repression.

One practical advantage of learning history is this pattern recognition shown in the examples before. Also, you learn not to fight in Afghanistan, as Britain and the USSR both invaded Afghanistan and fell. “The Graveyard of Empires” it was called. Would-be revolutionaries can look soberly on the French Revolution 1848—commonly known for the one in 1830 which Weber would memorialize with song and dance in his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s historical fiction, the Gunpowder Plot, the assassination of James Garfield, the numerous assassinations in the 1960s and June 21, 1914, for the results of violent revolutions.

The reaction to the death of a leader can result in reprisals and a tendency for the populace to reject the violent murderer’s ideology. It worked for the IRA, because they made life for the British difficult and were fighting asymmetrically with local support, like Vietnam. People can recognize a lack of will to act against revolutions, a discontented farming class, budgetary weaknesses and marginal elites like Robespierre. They can also determine the patterns leading to revolutions and attempt to predict the result of the Arab Spring. George Santayana claimed that “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” I do not agree that those who do not learn from history will necessarily repeat it, but they will miss parallels that could warn them against certain courses of action.

However, Godwin’s internet law states that someone will eventually bring up comparisons to the Nazi party in the 1930s, the Munich conference, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong or Franco at some point in discourse, even if it is tenuous and overemphasized. This reveals that there exist some who may know only a little and think that they are informed enough to discover parallels. The author of this article is among those guilty of overconfidence in their historical literacy.

Another advantage is an increased ability to understand the results of historical processes. Contemporaneous situations require an understanding of historical developments, since the current conditions are often a result of prior processes, as poet Maya Angelou stated. For example, understanding Latin American politics requires one to understand that the United States often engaged in coups, first on behalf of wealthy industrialists to control resources and then later as a means of proxy fights during the Cold War when the Soviet Union aided the toppling of the previous regimes. Without the Cold War, Al-Qaeda would be a different organization. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi member of the American anti-Russian Mujahadeen, who launched a vendetta against the United States after they denied his Mujahadeen’s offer to defend Saudi Arabia in the first Gulf War. Furthermore, in reaction to the ousting of the Shah by Mossadeq, attempts to reinstate the Shah and the Iran-Iraq War enabled Khomeini to assume power and oppose Western Culture. NATO has been abused in Iraq and Iran, as its purpose was to prevent the Soviet Union from conquering Europe. The European Union, which began as a commodities trading bloc, was established to both rebuild Europe and tie the continent together so tightly as to prevent a third world war by ensuring France, Germany and England were so dependent on each other that they would not declare war on each other. The past is also full of stories, which, while not proper history, are fun to learn. History documents the past and an understanding of that data enables analysis, synthesis and projection and means of ensuring the projections fail to transpire.


Jacob Ningen is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.ningen@uconn.edu.