Why is History Important?
Quite often when giving a speech, I ask my audience a question: When did human history begin? Would anyone like to suggest a date? The answers offered are sometimes ingenious, but seldom the one I want. For my answer to this question is: Now. History begins now, at this very moment. What happened a second ago is already history. History is the huge succession of events that created us. You can look at it, if you like, in the same way as you do a family tree, tracing back to your two parents, four grandparents, and so on. You can't begin, I suggest, to know about yourself, to understand the present, the way we live and why, until you understand something of your roots in the past. The past gives the present its value. For example, I personally am a passionate believer in the importance of the separation of church and state enshrined in the American Constitution by the founding fathers. The reason I value that separation so much is because I know a little of the huge tragedy of the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century that preceded it. It was the deep memory of that European experience that guided those wise Americans to ensure that the terrible mistake of the old world would not be repeated in the new.
My second point is a truism. Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. Some years ago, I had the honor to address a class at West Point. The subject, as it happened, was Russia. But during the course of my remarks, I offered them this thought: History is Reconnaissance. We cannot know how to act wisely in any part of the world, in war or peace, unless we understand something of its culture and history. Even if you enter an unpopulated desert, I suggested, it might be helpful to know what happened to the last army that did so. Since then, I'd say, the analogy of history studies with reconnaissance has become more relevant than ever.
And then there's the sheer delight, the incredible richness of the world's cultures. We can discover not just a lifetime, but centuries of the astonishing creations of the human mind... History, for me, opens wide the doors of perception.