Why You Should Read History

“The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.”
Ray Bradbury, 
Fahrenheit 451

 

I vividly remember my first History class in high school. My teacher talked about a particular George Santayana quote in our textbook, which was, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

While I would probably find a lot of things to disagree with in the textbook if I were to read it today, that quote sums up why it’s so important to learn from history — you learn so that you don’t repeat the same costly and monumental mistakes that were made by people in the past.

It’s that simple. 

Those lessons are ideally for a society to learn in order to become a better people. But considering that most people don’t read, those lessons are for you to learn as an individual, so that there would be at least one less jackass in the world. 

When I say read history, I don’t mean the school textbooks. I mean the works of unbiased and neutral authors, who chronicle the good and bad, with no intention to glorify or defame any party. 

Reading these works, not only would you find such valuable lessons to remember, but you would never cease to realize how complicated this world really is — how un-black-and-white it really is, unlike how it’s typically portrayed in the textbooks and the media.

As you read about the Spanish conquistadors, you’d come to know of their mission in annihilating the Americas, which was to “civilize” the local tribes there. You’d also come to know of how many of these tribes were more ethical and civilized than the conquistadors in many ways. For instance, the tribes would present their enemies with weapons such as shields before the day of fighting, as a way to ensure that their enemies would have a fair fight. These tribes were caught off guard when the conquistadors didn’t reciprocate the gesture and attacked them out of nowhere. 

As it went, the conquistadors christianized the locals and plundered whatever gold was left of their lands. 

You’d read about the United States Declaration of Independence, which says, “All men are created equal”. But the Founding Fathers weren’t referring to slaves, and even women, when they came up with that paragraph. 

You’d read about the Chernobyl disaster, and you might agree with Mikhail Gorbachev’s opinion that the Soviet Union’s downfall began from there. The Soviet Union was known for their strict control of whatever was written or reported about them, in order to maintain an image of infallibility. With that, they glossed over the fact that the power plant was badly designed and that they employed underqualified workers, and they were quick to brush off any news of the disaster. 

The Soviet Union leaders were eventually pressured to acknowledge the scale of the disaster, and the people started to realize about the Union’s failings. They feared for their lives and safety, and craved more freedom in terms of the information they could have access to and what they could say. 

You’d read about World War II, and the Holocaust — how the Nazis committed a mass murder of Jewish people — shooting them, gassing them, frying them in their ovens.  You’d come to realize that the Allies weren’t so different in committing mass murder, after their bombing of Dresden, as well as of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Read history so that you become better than those before you. Read history so that you have an understanding of how crazy this world is, and the gruesome acts that we humans are truly capable of doing. Read history so that you aren’t caught off guard by the ways of the world. 

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