Thursday, February 15, 2018

History is a larger way of looking at life

From The Jefferson Lecture by David McCullough, delivered in 2003. On history.
History is -- or should be -- a lesson in appreciation. History helps us keep a sense of proportion.

History teaches that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman, that we are all shaped by the influences of others, including so many we've never seen because they are back there in history.

History teaches that nothing happens in isolation, or without cause and effect, and that nothing ever had to happen as it did.

History teaches tolerance, and the value of common sense, and as Voltaire (and who knows how many others) observed, common sense is anything but common.

History is about high achievement, glorious works of art, music, architecture, literature, philosophy, science and medicine -- not just politics and the military -- as the best of politicians and generals have readily attested. History is about leadership, and the power of ideas. History is about change, because the world has never not been changing, indeed because life itself is change.

History is the course of human events. And it must therefore be, if truthful, about failure, injustice, struggle, suffering, disappointment, and the humdrum. History demonstrates often in brutal fashion the evils of enforced ignorance and demagoguery. History is a source of strength, a constant reminder of the courage of others in times more trying and painful than our own. As Churchill reminded us, "We have not journeyed all this way... because we are made of sugar candy."

History is filled with voices that reach out and lift the spirits, sometimes from the distance of centuries.

Is it possible to imagine not learning from the wisest, most thoughtful people who shaped the world, or to fail to take heart from manifest courage?

Is life not infinitely more interesting and enjoyable when one can stand in a great historic place or walk historic ground, and know something of what happened there and in whose footsteps you walk?

For a free, self-governing people something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential, if we are to hold on to and sustain our freedom.

But I don't think history should ever be made to seem like some musty, unpleasant pill that has to be swallowed solely for our civic good. History, let us agree, can be an immense source of pleasure. For almost anyone with the normal human allotment of curiosity and an interest in people, it is a field day.

Why would anyone wish to be provincial in time, any more than being tied down to one place through life, when the whole reach of the human drama is there to experience in some of the greatest books ever written.

I guess if I had to boil it down to a few words, I would say history is a larger way of looking at life.

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