Why Study History?

by Dale Beecher

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    There is a theory that the only purpose of history classes is to train history teachers—who in turn teach more classes to train more history teachers. Such a self-perpetuating circle might appeal to a few academic pedants, but it leaves some questions unanswered. Why do so many nonprofessionals take history courses and read history books, biographies, and historical novels? Why are whole communities commemorating important people and events, improving their museums, and preserving or restoring historic buildings and even entire neighborhoods?

    We have often heard this trend described as “the current nostalgia fad,” with the implication that it is only of passing interest to a few, soon to be forgotten. This interpretation does not take into account some of the most fundamental needs of human nature and of modern society.

    “There is something in us that demands a sense of continuity,” stated Dr. Russell Mortensen recently. The idea is not new. Steinbeck says it through the dispossessed sharecroppers of his Grapes of Wrath; sorting out their meager belongings, deciding what they might take and what they must discard as they leave their homes, they say, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”

    How indeed can a person establish and maintain his identity independent of his background? How can I tell where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been? How can I tell what I’m becoming if I don’t know what I am? How can I understand what I am if I don’t understand how I got that way?

    The decline of moral values, the increase in social permissiveness, rebellion against the establishment, the feeling of aimlessness and hopelessness with an increasing recourse to alcohol or drugs are the subjects of a good many studies by every kind of social scientist. And increasingly the blame is being charged to a cutting loose from the steadying influences that people hold to for guidance. The malady affecting modern society is being diagnosed as a general rootlessness.

    Such books as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Vance Packard’s A Nation of Strangers indicate that by moving from place to place, changing cars and wardrobes every year, and using disposable products, we are losing our sense of permanence. Future Shock, a recent book by Alvin Toffler, argues that we will have to accept this impermanence as a way of life. It predicts that institutions, such as community, friendship, even home and family, will change or disappear, and a new and transient society must be prepared to replace them with something more appropriate.

    Is such a social breakdown inevitable? Will the quest for identity, so much a part of the contemporary scene, end in total anonymity?

    No! The present generation has developed a very positive attitude toward the present and the future, recognizing as never before our ability to change the world, and ourselves, for the better. There are many who look only at now or into the immediate future, and the progress they make seems to them somehow isolated and hollow. They find that they have no gauge or standard but themselves and very little sense of where they are going. Many others, in the Church and out, are looking for values with more lasting significance and are finding them in the heritage of their forefathers.

    Rather than abandoning the antique trappings of our civilization, these people are seeking them out and clinging to them like old friends. Young couples move into old houses, which, instead of modernizing, they restore to the original condition and fill with period furniture. They get involved with Victorian buildings, ancient automobiles, Renaissance music, vintage literary works, and other such things. Even the dress and hair styles of a century ago have shown up again as part of this search for identity in our history. As columnist Sidney Harris puts it, “Young people turn to the past not to escape reality, but to find it—to rediscover their origins and trace the continuity of the species. It is basically a search for ‘family’ in the rubble of the past.”

    Mrs. Mila Tupper Maynard came at it from a different angle in her 1899 address to the Utah State Historical Society: “What we care for is the present and future, not the past. But the past means above all things the mine from which is drawn wisdom. The present and future need wisdom for their fulfillment. Freedom from prejudice, that general breadth and height and depth of character judgment which we may term wisdom is required, and there is no discipline that can give so much of this real wisdom as the study of history. Other studies have value in other directions, but none that bear so directly on the relations of man to man and upon the practical solutions of the problems of today.”

    This broadened view can give us an entirely new outlook on life. Our favorite old stereotypes and misconceptions disappear before our very eyes as we trace the development of people and their affairs. We learn to cope with reality rather than follow utopian dreams as history shows us how attempts to establish utopia in this mortal world have, with few exceptions, consistently shattered on human failings. “History,” said Mrs. Maynard, “gives a sense of the progress of mankind. There never was a historian who was a pessimist. He could not be. He can look fifty years back of him and need never ask if the world is progressing.”

    History will also give us a reservoir of experience upon which to base our interpretations and decisions. How often do we read a principle in the scriptures and wonder, how does this apply to real life? How many times have we been advised to make decisions of morality and ethics ahead of time so that when faced with a thorny situation we won’t panic, and then we find that we don’t even know what situations to expect! It is not only helpful but comforting to look at some of the predicaments our forebears got themselves into, and to see what they did about them. As Joseph Smith said in 1839: “Why will not men learn wisdom by precept and example … and not be obliged to learn everything we know by sad experience?”

    Perhaps the greatest value of history is as a builder of faith. Writer Mark Beltaire says, “Strike from mankind the principle of faith and we would have no more history than a flock of sheep.” The reverse is also true. Take from mankind our history, and upon what would we base our faith? How could the gospel itself answer our questions if we had no questions to ask? Looking back in time not only shows us inspiring examples but also supplies us with goals to seek and ideas to contemplate in our own development.

    Again, this is all closely related to the personal or group identity crisis. Everyone needs to know where he fits into the scheme of things. But often we get so caught up in the problems or the busy work of the present that we lose sight of the broader picture. We are so intent on preparing an interesting Sunday School lesson or getting our home teaching done that we may forget why we’re doing it in the first place. To know where we fit we must be able to envision the whole scheme.

    Every sermon includes a call to repentance and so does this one: Broaden your view. Don’t live in a vacuum. Don’t allow yourself to become trapped in a limiting preoccupation with the situation of the moment. Stand back, away from your present, and look at yourself in your family, your whole human family, in the perspective of time.

    Involve yourself in your history. Get the background provided by courses in history, both of the Church and in general, but don’t stop there. Study the scriptures; visit nearby historic sites and discover what happened there. Find out what events your own ancestors took part in. Consider joining the historical or genealogical society of your state or locality, the Mormon History Association, Friends of Church History, and other such organizations. Get involved in—or start—the history or geography club of your college, high school, institute, or seminary. Not only is it instructive, but it is reassuring in a changing society; and it can be an ego trip of the first order.

    Get acquainted with your family and its history. The diaries, personal papers, and memorabilia that your great-grandparents may have left behind are invaluable. If there are any such things in your attic, by all means go through them—carefully. Interview your parents and grandparents to see how things were before your time. It could be an interesting family home evening activity and a great aid to you in your genealogy work.

    Incidentally, after perusing old papers or pictures, it is a good idea to send them to the Church Historical Department at 50 East North Temple in Salt Lake City, 84150. In their new building, with room to expand and facilities to care for old documents, the historians are delighted and grateful to receive these materials. They can send you a copy if you like, or they can make a copy for the Church Archives and return the original to you. And if your oral interviews turn up anything of general significance, they would like to know about that too. Artifacts of historical interest might also be better off in a local museum than deteriorating in your basement.

    Most important of all is to keep up your own diary, book of remembrance, Treasures of Truth book, and picture albums. If you find it difficult to know what to include or leave out, the solution is fairly simple. Skim through Grandpa’s journal again. Note what parts of his life interest you most and what kinds of things he should have written about but didn’t. Ask yourself how you would have written his story, then write your own that way.

    Remember that your grandchildren will someday be seeking continuity and identity too, and part of their answer is up to you.

    In the words, again, of Mrs. Maynard: “One generation brought about the fulfillment of the struggle for truth and for freedom. Let our children once feel in the very blood of their veins what that struggle meant, and it will give them courage for all the rest of the struggles that will come into their lives. It makes the petty struggles of today seem insignificant. The whole glory of history is in the consciousness underlying the human soul in all ages that mankind is in this world to bring about the kingdom of heaven upon earth, and that every generation is doing its part toward bringing about higher, nobler conditions of men.”

    Illustrated by Richard Hull