2012/03/21

Why I Study History

So yesterday, I found a newfound love for TED talks.  We're friends.....really good friends.  Anyway, I was listening to JK Rowling's commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008.  I totally recommend it - seriously, I love it so much.  Her topic is two pronged: the benefits of failure and the importance of inspiration.  In her speech, she relates her experience working in the African research department of Amnesty International.  She says:
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power.  I began to have night mares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read . . . 
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced.  They can think themselves into other people's places . . . And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all.  They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.  They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know 
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do.  Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors.  I think the willfully unimaginative  see more monsters.  They are often more afraid. 
What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.  For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy.

In these few paragraphs, Ms. Rowling perfectly details why I study history.  I think there is bravery in facing those things which make us want to cringe or cry.  The story of humanity is not always one of happiness and beauty.  It entails heartbreak and struggles, horror and darkness.  But if we choose not to acknowledge it, if we willfully ignore history, we do ourselves and our predecessors a disservice.  We bring these nightmares upon ourselves when we do not face the horrible things that have happened.

But history tells a different story as well.  There are stories of triumph and happiness--stories of men and women who strive every day for a better tomorrow.  Children who grow up in peace and security, virtuous and generous political leaders.  These stories deserve their telling as well.

Ms.  Rowling makes the following observation: "One of the many things I learned . . . was written by the Greek author Plutarch:  What we achieve  inwardly will change outer reality.  That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives.  It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing."

How much truth is in this statement - we touch other people's lives simply by existing.  Understanding the people around us and how they affect our lives is, in my opinion, the key to changing our world.  When we have this understanding, it makes us kinder, gentler with each other, and allows for more growth and unity.

And this is why I study history.

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