Don’t Waste Your Time Taking History Courses

Don’t waste your time taking history courses, Vera.

That’s not to suggest you should remain ignorant of history. You shouldn’t. As George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s just that there are a lot of better ways of learning the lessons of history than sitting in most high school or college lectures.

Some of these lectures are worthwhile. The vast majority aren’t. I’ve sat through quite a few history courses. Only one was interesting and valuable. All the others were a complete waste of time. Or worse. They buttressed the notion that education was boring. In effect, they were anti-learning experiences.

Part of the problem is obsolescence. In general, formal education is obsolete. Our system was designed for an earlier time, when books and knowledge were rare. We now have the internet. Yet most people teach history the same way it was taught 100 years ago. What a waste of people’s time. If you want to spend a lot of time memorizing dates and names that I can look up in a second, go ahead. But I assure you, there are better ways to spend your precious time.

Boredom and obsolescence aren’t the worse of it, however. Propaganda is. Hence, these courses typically mislead, providing a heavily biased view laced with agenda.

Most history courses and teachers simply parrot the nationalistic ideology that fills our history textbooks. Or parrot the teacher or professor’s particular perspective, interpretation or ideology.

Propaganda. That’s what most history textbooks and courses really are. Consequently, we tend to learn the wrong things. Wrong lessons. Is it any wonder we continue to make the same mistakes.

We tend not to learn from history. Rather, we learn from the retelling of someone’s account of history. There’s a big difference. Maybe it’s good we don’t learn much from our history courses.

But there is one thing we learn from history (if we’re look). Warren Buffett said it well: What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.”

He’s right. We make the same mistakes, over and over, which, you would think, would cause us to reexamine our teaching methods. But we don’t. So avoid the formal educational parts of history. By and large, they’re a waste of time. Worse yet, they’re misleading. And harmful.

More often than not, they tell you about one-dimensional historical characters who’ve become caricatures.

More often than not, they force you to memorize dates and a lot of other insignificant minutia while ignoring or minimizing the important stuff — humanity’s motivations, bias, predispositions, weaknesses, and the root causes of self-destructive decisions and tendencies.

More often than not, the history conveyed in schools merely share the victor’s spin on history.

We could learn a lot from history. But, Mr. Buffett is right: we don’t.

History can teach us valuable and useful lessons about ourselves, the way we live and govern ourselves, our biases and tendencies, our decision-making. It can make us wiser and help us avoid stupid decisions. But that’s not how nearly all of our history courses are oriented.

There are some great teachers of history out there. If you have an opportunity to learn from them, seize it. But don’t waste your time sailing in the sea of mediocrity where most history courses and teachers are found. There are better ways of spending your time and energy. Much better ways.

Read.

Biographies. Autobiographies. Memoirs. Documents. Journals. Diaries. Lectures (from the original sources). Letters. Books people have written — not about history but about their lives. Lyrics. Poems.

Read not for the purpose of acquiring information. Read for the purpose of understanding and learning.

Read more primary source and approach the secondary ones with your eyes wide open.

Read relevant material, for relevant purposes. Read for the purpose of learning and becoming a better decision-maker. Read for the purpose of becoming wiser. And more insightful.

Read with integrity and not for confirmation. Place nationalism and patriotism on the shelf when you read. Read to be challenged in every way imaginable.

Look behind the words. Endeavor to understand what was really going on.

Probe. Question.

Accept the fact that history is inevitably a perspective — a particular narrative. Don’t expect facts. Rather, simply endeavor to look into the past with as much clarity as possible. Cut through the haze as much as you can. But acknowledge that distance and the human mind always stand in the way of absolute clarity.

See.

Go to Gettysburg. Rome. London. Philadelphia. Versailles. Venice. Jerusalem. Museums. Archeological digs (e.g., Dinosaur National Monument).

See the fruits of history. And of humanity’s choices. Learn how Mother Earth has evolved. And how it’s continuing to evolve.

Get to know people of different cultures. Learn how the world looks through their eyes.

None of us can see it all. We all have blinders and filters. But we see more when we share what we see and hear what others see. Our collective eyesight is far closer to 20-20 than any individual’s solitary vision.

But be careful not to look for black hats and white hats, either in history or in the moment for that matter. Everyone wears a gray hat. Sometimes, the shade is darker; sometimes, the shade is light. But it’s always gray.

Ask why. Try to understand why.

But don’t allow yourself to gaze into the rearview mirror. History’s relevance is the future. Always be looking forward, into tomorrow, down the road, around the corner. Always be listening for the cautionary words from the past. For the insights and wisdom that can be found there.

Look for the ways politics and economics intersect. Endeavor to discern true motivations. Don’t be too quick to accept noble explanations. But don’t disregard them either.

History’s landscape is marked with footprints of both sin and sacrifice. Footprints are made by big people. But they’re made by very small people, too.

Acknowledge complexity. And ambiguity. Reject simplicity. Avoid textbooks.

I really don’t think one can become a smart, wise decision-maker while remaining ignorant of history. But I do think one can remain largely ignorant of history even after sitting through many history courses in our schools.

There are better ways of spending one’s time.

Read. Visit. Explore. Probe. Reflect.

Keep an open mind. Acknowledge our biases and preconceptions. Don’t succumb to the forces that inevitably blind us and that oppose the critical mind — things like nationalism, imperialism, guilt, shame, desire, insecurity, fear.

Learn.

And then put what you’ve learned to good use.

Help save the world from itself.

Help save yourself.

 

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