My oldest asked me the other day why we study history. I got up from my spot at the dining room table I use for work and went into the kitchen. "Do you want the pithy quote or a deeper answer?" I replied, pulling out a glass and filling it with water.
She wanted the quote first.
"We study the past so we don't have to repeat it."
"Do you know what that means?"
"It means that history is filled with mistakes, things gone wrong, and decisions that turned out to be disastrous. If we study those, we can hopefully learn from those problems so we don't do those things again."
"Yeah, but what's the other answer?"
"That the past is completely foreign to us. We look at things, and we don't know how they were achieved. We may have ideas on how things were done, but we don't know without studying them. Look at the pyramids."
"They were built with slave labor."
"Well, maybe and maybe not. There's some evidence that each village in Egypt sent workers seasonally --and willingly-- to work on the pyramids. But the details on how they were built were lost to antiquity. Like how the pyramids in Central America were built remain a mystery. Or Egyptian obelisks."
"Hey, there was a NOVA show on that!"
"Yes. People have theories how it works, but we still don't know how they were done."
She chewed on that for a few minutes.
"Look at it this way: we see things with 21st century eyes and see the disconnect. Like how our Founding Fathers fought for freedom to choose--"
"--yet they owned slaves," she finished.
"Exactly. Some of them wrestled with that problem, but a lot of them didn't have an issue with it at all. Studying the past allows us to take a critical eye at ourselves and see what we might be missing that future generations would point out."
I sat back down at my laptop. "Besides, learning about people and how they lived is fun. I'll never get to travel to see Marcus Aurelius' Rome, but I can read about it. And an archaeologist can study the city and reconstruct what it was like back then. Without history, we'd never know."