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The Importance of Historical Awareness

Two events happened recently and set me to thinking simultaneously about both my experiences as a teacher and research historian as well as the current state of our society.

First, I ran across an article about historical awareness.* Second, a distant relative contacted me about our families' genealogies, which overlapped many times.

I recall an ad from the past that said, "We've come a long way, baby!" But the distance we've traveled isn't the most important thing. The big question is the direction we're heading. No matter how far one goes, the critical issue is whether he's headed in the right direction.

A knowledge of history is one of the best ways of knowing the answer to that seminal question. After all, as the oft-quoted quip says, those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat the same mistakes others have made.

Following are a few quotations from the article I mentioned above, and they underscore the importance of our developing historical awareness.

  • "Failure to read good books . . . strengthens our most fatal tendency--the belief that here and now is all there is." (Allan Bloom)

  • "[O]ur culture is gleeful in its ignorance in general, and ignorance of history in particular. . . . [H]istory provides context for life and thought. . . . Without an awareness of history last year's discarded failures of ideas become this year's latest great idea. . . . History can and should lead us to maturity, preparing us to be discerning. . . . [I]t gives us experience. Why rely only on the years we have ourselves? History gives us the opportunity to gain years of experience by delving into the human experience, which has been written down, giving us further opportunity to gain maturity. . . . Historical awareness can deliver us from both crushing despair and sophomoric narcissism just by placing our own situation in the context of broader human experience. . . . [I]f we lack historical awareness, we will lack discernment and direction." (Ray Van Neste)

  • "The surest way to destroy a people is to erase the memory of their past." (Alister McGrath)

  • "The most effectual means for preventing the move to tyranny is the teaching of history." (Thomas Jefferson)

  • "A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is much too much in our time." (David McCullough)

  • "The past is given to those in the present to keep and guard those in the future." (Alfred the Great)

As historian Brian McClanahan repeatedly emphasizes, we should "think locally, act locally," and the effects will be felt in an even broader context. The same is true in the development of historical awareness. Begin by discovering your own family's history.

That is the beginning of the process of developing historical awareness. As one learns the historical context in which each member and generation of his or her family lived, knowledge of the broader history--local, state, national, and international--will become clearer. And that knowledge will provide direction for the future.

Learn it. Record it. Share it.

What are you doing to ensure that the next generation has a clear historical awareness?

*Ray Van Neste, "The Problem of Our Gleeful Historical Ignorance," The Imaginative Conservative (April 10, 2023).

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