“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man: true nobility is being superior to your former self” – Ernest Hemingway
For some, studying history need not be justified because, for them, it is inherently interesting and engaging. In these instances reading about history is entertaining in the way reading a novel or watching a movie is for others. However, there are those for whom history is simply a boring and laborious topic for high school and college classrooms that is to be drugged through and forgotten as fast as possible. The driving goal behind this site is to bring together both groups of people in the higher endeavor of self-improvement. For history is more than mere entertainment and it is far more than a mere school subject.
The act of studying history should be an act of improving ourselves. Amongst a near endless list of benefits, studying History can help each of us with the following:
1.) Develop and Refine our Personal Values
2.) Learn from the lives (successes and failures) of other human beings
3.) Boost our curiosity, build associations and context, and boost drive to learn new things
Developing Our Personal Values
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” Henry David Thoreau (Walden)
If you are still reading, I assume you care about improving yourself and want to see how history can help you achieve that. To start let us address how the study of history plays a roll in understanding our Personal Values. Why? Because, whether we care to admit it or not (or even care to think about it) we all have some set of values that govern our lives and we cary them with us every day. When I write personal values I mean those conscious, even if only partially so, thoughts/beliefs/interests/cares/concerns etc… that motivate our decisions. They can be good and they can be bad. Some of these may be desirable and something we should be proud of (we may value our friends and family, and we place great value on honesty). Some of these traits may be not quite as admirable. They may be downright horrible and something we need to kick (we may be vomit inducingly lazy or a just a bit too money crazed). But almost every conscious decision we face in some way reflects those personal values. When you find a wallet with money in it do you keep the money or do you try to find the rightful owner? When your sister’s car breaks down do you go pick her up or do you tell her to call Uber because your favorite TV show is on? When election day rolls around, do you vote or do you stay home? If you do vote, for who and why? The questions are infinite but the reasons for those decisions are not necessarily so. Certainly our daily choices can be influenced by a combination of factors ranging from our health, to whether there was traffic on the way to work, to the weather, but none so influential as those personal values. If we want to improve ourselves we better be able to not only state what those values are but also be able to understand where they come from and why we have them. Let us cultivate the ones we want and get rid of those that we don’t and let’s use history to help us do it.
For instance, our family history can teach us quite a bit about why we are the way we are. Are there cultural or religious influences in your family’s past that cultivated the values and interests you hold today? Was your great aunt a Shaker or a Quaker? Do you come from a liberal or conservative or socialist or epicureanist family? Why? What led your parents or grandparents to the beliefs they hold? Do you believe/accept what your elders do and why/why not? What roll does your family history play in the development of your values? You may be surprised by the answer. (Or you may not, what do I know?) Better yet, are there values lost in your ancestry waiting to be rediscovered and adopted by a new generation? Perhaps you have a great-great grandmother who was active in your state’s suffrage movement and you have a continuing interest in modern day voting rights issues. Maybe a long lost great uncle was a bootlegger during prohibition. What would you have done with your life if you had lived during his time? For most of us, understanding ourselves cannot be complete without understanding our family, however we define it.
Additionally, the history of our communities can teach us about where we fit in the world around us. The history of our country, our culture, our art, our music, our politics, our wars, as well as understanding the histories of other countries, cultures, and communities provides us an understanding of why the world is the way it is. This may not always lead to happy discoveries about ourselves or our families or our communities but discovering difficult truths from history can be just as useful in our development as the easy to digest ones, maybe more so. If our values govern our actions is it not vital to understand where they come from and how they have played out in the world? Since I am writing this, to answer my own questions. The answer is, yes. Without this knowledge our values cannot be fully understood nor can they be fully defended or justified.
Learning from the lives of others
“It may be an unwise man who doesn’t learn from his own mistakes but it is an absolute idiot who doesn’t learn from other people’s”- Frasier Crane (sic)
Understanding history is largely understanding both the successes and failures of the people of who have been on this planet before you. Of course you may never be in a situation identical to Lee at Gettysburg or Napoleon at Waterloo or Marx at Freedonia but if you cannot take something for your own life out of their blunders you are not trying hard enough (FYI, they all made colossal misjudgments that led to the deaths of thousands of their own troops and the eventual demise of their respective armies. Not a good day).
At the very least you can feel a little better about yourself when you learn of the misfortunes of other historical figures. Take Mark Twain who made what must have been an unimaginable sum of money for the 19th century by authoring some of the definitive classics of American literature and enthralling audiences across the country with his wit and humor on the lecture circuit. He lost nearly all of his fortune, however, as a result of years of study as a world class comedically poor businessman. Twain took the money he earned from his books, his lectures, and publishing Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs and sunk it into the following: an engraving process (which was purposely set on fire by it’s inventor on more than one occasion to avoid admitting to Twain that it did not work), a useless magnetic telegraph, a steam pulley, and the infamous Paige Typesetter that was to revolutionize the way books and newspapers were printed but only succeeded in revolutionizing the way Twain was to be separated from his money.
The now legendary author was presented with at least one business idea, however, would make millions. The Bell Telephone Company offered Twain the opportunity to be one of the first investors in one of the greatest inventions of the second half of the 19th century. Having owned one of the first telephones in the entire United States, Twain was quick to recognize its potential and promptly…passed on the investment. No matter what the man tried, as a businessman he would never be anything but an abject failure. The great playwright, Arthur Miller, said of Twain that he was a spectacularly poor businessman precisely because he was such a good storyteller. Miller’s point was that it was the writer’s imagination of Twain that allowed him to see potential success in a drove of inventions where a good businessman would only see failure. Why Twain’s imagination could not see the inevitable success of the telephone is a mystery but not everyone of Twain’s books was a success either so what can you do?
What is the point of all of this? The figures of history were human beings. Their stories may be the ones that were written but ultimately their’s be the stories of your fellow humans. They have lived lives like you have. They have loved and hated as you have. They have experienced boredom and excitement, success and failure, happiness and sadness just as you have. Other people have gone through almost all of the same tumult and joy as you and they have something to share with you about it. At the very least you can learn from the mistakes of others and when someone asks you to invest in the next telephone, you will know enough to say yes. Stupid Mark Twain.
Boost your testos…I mean your CURIOSITY and desire to learn
“The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read”- Abraham Lincoln
An unending curiosity and drive to learn new things is an essential trait to cultivate when trying to improve oneself. How do we know this? Because History tells us so. Few figures who have made positive and substantial marks in this work have been able to do so without a substantial curiosity. Sometimes it has been on a specific idea and sometimes it has been an endless, general curiosity but it is an ever-present trait of all most all human beings of any import in this world. Abraham Lincoln had no more than one year of formal education in all his life yet he became perhaps the greatest President in American history. How? He was a vivacious reader and was insatiably curious about law, history, (some) literature, and politics. His curiosity was not there for every subject he came across (he showed little interest in Science, music, and art) but he read anything and everything he could on the subjects that did interest him. He taught himself to be a lawyer and passed the bar entirely from self study. This curiosity served him so well that he became one of the best Lawyers in the state of Illinois. He, along with his partner, grew his practice to the point of handling a third of all cases in the State Capitol of Springfield. His constant desire to learn drove him to develop a stash of stories and quotes from literature and history that he could recall on command. Having such tales ready to dispense for any occasion made Lincoln’s career as much as anything. That ability was indispensable in building the necessary support for his term in the U.S. House of representatives and eventually his run for the Presidency in 1860. Finally, he would draw on every last self taught trait, tactic, story, and fact from his life to successfully keep the country united and win the Civil War. If it was good enough for Lincoln, I think it is good enough for us. Give the study of History a try.
As the goal is self improvement this site is not focused on any one area of history. We will look at politics as well as literature, wars as well as poetry. One article may look at the major factors of racial and cultural clashes in this country as an effort to understand why these remain painful open wounds in today’s society. The next post may be on the impact of seventies singer-songwriters on modern American Music. We may look at the history of opera, painting, or theatre one day and the history of the roll of increasingly important technology and social media platforms. No area will be off limits but the purpose will be the same throughout: IF WE UNDERSTAND HISTORY WE CAN UNDERSTAND OURSELVES AND THE WORLD.