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The Value of History

Michael J. Ring

Having served as the capital of the Confederate States of America, the city of Richmond, Virginia has seen its share of triumph, tragedy, strife, and bloodshed. As such it holds an important place in the annals of American history. Unforunately, the parks and battlefields dotting the regional landscape do not seem to hold much of a place at all in locals’ and visitors’ minds.

This summer I spent a few short hours in Richmond and had an opportunity to see a couple of the historic sites around the city. Apparently I was one of a very select few people to have this desire. In fact, in an hour spent at Cold Harbor National Battlefield, a friend and I were the only visitors.

Admittedly, the battlefields around Richmond are not as famous or as historically significant as turning points like Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Still, Richmond and its surburbs are nearly one million strong, and between natives and visitors somebody should show just a little more interest in its history.

Of course, I didn’t have to go to Virginia to see history ignored. Boston, after all, is a city of the greatest historical importance where many natives and toruists alike show more interest in Filene’s Basement than the Old North Church. When was the last time that you walked the Freedom Trail?

As we enter the Third American Century, Americans know all too little about the first two. As a nation, we don’t visit historical sites, don’t learn our nation’s stories, don’t recognize the people and places that shaped this nation.

So why is this all important? Humanists love to expound upon the importance of history as a reflection of our culture and our mind. But on more practical terms, there are very important reasons for studying history. And as we approach new challenges as a nation, our lack of appreciation for history has stopped being just a nuisance and annoyance to crabby history buffs such as myself. Indeed, our ignorance will harm our nation’s ability to solve national and world problems in our next century.

First off, Americans’ habitual ignorance of the political process and our lack of awareness and respect for our history are intertwined. Those who know history can more fully appreciate the powers available in our political process. Americans who whine about their votes not counting would be wise to study an election such as 1960 where contests were decided by mere fractions of percentage points. Great political achievements such as the economic protections of the New Deal and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s were made possible only by a bloc of voters committed to those programs. The pundits of political doom can be proven wrong by a committed electorate -- Harry S. Truman is testament to that.

Beside a greater appreciation for our political process, an understanding of history offers us policy lessons as well. Many of the challenges facing our nation today were also examined in similar situations in the past.

Take, for example, the sentiment among the political right that international political bodies are harmful to United States sovereignty. Organizations such as the United Nations are favorite targets of conservative Republican wrath. I suggest those political isolationists who favor a smaller role for America on the world stage need only look back some eighty years, to the aftermath of the First World War. The United States, fearful of losing its sovereignty, chose not to join the League of Nations. Without the world’s most powerful nation, the League was hapless to halt German and Japanese military aggression and expansion, and the rest is history.

Of course, it is not only conservatives who need to hit the history books in order to deduce a solution to one of today’s problems. Many liberals defend bilingual education as the best way to incorporate immigrant children into the American educational system. But time and again in social history, through various immigrant groups, immersion in English proves to be the ticket to American propserity. The sooner an immigrant group can grasp full command of English, the more quickly the group will enjoy success in American society.

Of course, we do not have the room in these pages to explore fully the issues in these summaries, nor can we discuss other historical situations from which we can learn answers to today’s problems. But hopefully we can see the value of history’s lessons for today’s problems, and decide that in looking to the future, we should also take a glance at the past.