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History: Facts or Narrative

An oft repeated statement(s) pertaining to History states something to the effect of: “If you do not know History, you are doomed to repeat it.” This quote presumes that one of the main purposes behind studying history is to not repeat the mistakes and pitfalls of the previous generations. However, this brings up an important question: What is history? Is it a collection of mere facts or is it more of a story and narrative?

In our current school setting, which is geared towards more and more standardized tests to measure progress, it seems that history is boiled down to nothing more than facts about who the sixteenth president was or what is the state flower/bird of California? This is especially evident in popular culture with trivia shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” or “Jeopardy” and is sometimes given a funnier twist by late night hosts, as with the “Jaywalking” segment on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Even though it may be funny (and even at times sad) that people do not know certain simple facts, the question then becomes, will knowing these facts help in our quest to not repeat the mistakes from the past?

In order to not repeat a mistake done by another, it is not enough to know merely who or what was done, it is important to understand the background and reasoning why an action was committed or not. This understanding will not come by simply knowing the facts, but it requires knowing the story and narrative of the given situation, so that by knowing what led to a certain outcome, it would then be possible to not go down the same path as the previous generation.

The esteemed Russian writer Solzhenitsyn had a great deal to say about not committing blunders from the past. So it is very appropriate to close with one of his quotes:

“Today, if one desires to read anything at all, one wants it to be brief, as brief as possible, and only on the subjects of the day. But every moment of our history, including today’s, is but a point on its axis. And if we wish to identify feasible and sure ways out of our menacing misfortunes, we must not lose sight of the numerous blunders in our past. Our plight today in many ways stems from these mistakes.”

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