Why should we find the cure for diseases?
Why should we develop technology?
Why should we seek to understand our relationship to the environment?
Why should we have a government?
At the foundation of each of these questions is the discipline of history. Understanding each of the above issues in the context of the past gives us in the present a reason to pursue those answers. Without history, there is no purpose.
I’ve heard it plenty of times that “The Sciences ask if we can do something, but the Humanities ask if we should.” But perhaps the next part of the statement should be, “Asking should questions should always precede asking can questions.” If we root our present explorations in the past failures and accomplishments, there is much to be learned.
Earlier this week, when challenging my students to think about why we should even bother learning about the American Revolution, I used the metaphor of a tree. Holding a painted picture of a tree and its roots up in front of the class, initially covering up the roots, I asked, “What do you see?” The students went on to describe the tree— its colors, shape, and size. Then asking how it got to be that way, they responded: “It grew.” But how did it grow? Where does the tree absorb water and nutrients? At last, we arrived to the purpose of the roots, and so I uncovered the bottom half of the painting— hundreds of roots. In order to fully understand what is seen above the surface, we must go beneath it. Just as we must understand the way the roots work for a tree, we must understand the roots of the society that we see. But how? Through the study of history.
The sciences have made this concept of looking for the roots very apparent for those in the field. After all, much of science is not simply scratching the surface of what is being done, it is digging deeper to figure out how things are working the way they are, and then potentially manipulating those findings in order to find a better way. In this way, history is the science of society. History asks the same questions scientists ask about their endeavors but on a much larger scale. How did we get here? What successes can we learn from? What failures can we avoid? Asking these questions are pathways to a successful society. Asking these questions are at the core of history.
The discipline of history is the foundation of all other disciplines. Without the context it provides, every other discipline has no purpose. May we as a society begin to revere the study of history in the same way that the STEM subjects are glorified. As the sciences are avenues to explore the things around us, may history be the science of our society, giving us purpose in those explorations.