Although history is one of the most popular majors at Yale, it tends to get a bad rap. As often taught in schools, “history” is mind-numbingly dull. You know the drill. “Some dead white guy did this on this date — please memorize the name and date for the quiz next week, children.” Even those of us who love history apologize for that mnemonic torture.
The real kicker is that this regurgitation is often justified with an awesome claim like, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.” Maybe, but anyone who actually knows history can name plenty examples of good history students who repeated their ancestors’ bone-headed mistakes time and time again.
Lack of historical awareness is certainly not the only hurdle keeping the world from its kumbaya moment, but understanding history can give us what we, as human beings, are looking for: love, devotion, entertainment, reconciliation and even hope.
Just take a look at the first edition of the Yale Historical Review, an online journal I began with a few friends this semester. In it, you will find a Roman general attempting to fall on his sword rather than disgrace the Empire, a brilliant intellectual made a pariah because of his ties to Nazism, a Yale chaplain defying menacing alumni to become the first prominent white Freedom Rider and the transformation of the battlefield at Gettysburg from an in-your-face marker of Northern victory to a revered national place of remembrance.
Good history explores the trials, tribulations and triumphs faced by all of us. It tells stories of women and men who risked, laughed, loved, dreamed, lived and died. Your story is not that different. It’s just that their lives were written down, and your biography is nowhere near complete. You may still repeat the mistakes of of our predecessors, but, if you allow yourself, the stories of the accomplishments failures and hopes of yesterday’s extradorinary figures together with the analysis and arguments of today can enlighten you and your actions.
As Aldous Huxley wrote in The Devils of Loudun, “The charm and enigmatic lesson of history consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.” In an elegant way, history simultaneously denies and affirms the concept of an increasingly complex world. Yes, you are unique — most of what you take for granted your ancestors never dreamed of — but that which makes us human has endured through time. Piecing together these strands of humanity has given me a clearer picture of the world around me and has helped me put my life in context. I hope you find the same.
Christopher Magoon is a junior in Berkeley College and the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the newly launched Yale Historical Review.