Why History is Important, Gosh Darn It!

I am currently studying to take the GRE. As part of that study, I just got done practicing my “Analyze an Issue” essay for the analytical writing portion. I figured I would share what I wrote as a nice break from me ranting about gender and trans issues all the gosh darn time. Also, since what I wrote about was interesting to me, I figured someone else out there might also find it interesting. However, it still makes references to social and political issues, so please be nice and keep in mind that I don’t have a lot of time to fully flesh out a logically bullet-proof argument (because that’s totally possible). I also didn’t have a choice about what I was to write about, thus it comes from a place of not knowing as much as I do when I talk about gender and trans issues. Okay, feel free to rip my writing to shreds (on those conditions)…

When we know our history, we are less likely to repeat it–meaning we more effectively avoid making mistakes, both individually and as a society, in the future when we take the time to learn from past mistakes. Examples of this include economic policies. However, some may argue that this practice of learning from the past may backfire when we learn the wrong lessons. It will be argued that though this is sometimes true, we can still learn from history and avoid repeating it so long as we have a more complete and accurate understanding of the past.

One of the most recognizable examples is from The Great Depression and The New Deal Era. The biggest takeaways from these events are (1) economic downturns often follow when too much wealth is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, and (2) redistributing wealth through taxation and public spending can prevent or remedy economic downturns. Of course, one other mistake that was made was assuming that such policies could be implemented to a degree and duration that turned out to be unsustainable.

These policies ended up causing what would be called stagflation–a macroeconomic phenomenon described by high inflation and unemployment rates during a period of slowing economic growth–a result of increases to the money supply intended to keep up with spending. Stagflation ended when the Federal Reserve “tightened” the money supply through increased interest rates.

It could be argued in both cases that we already had historical lessons to learn from and had we learned from them, these policy mistakes could have been avoided. The problem is we didn’t, and it wasn’t necessarily because we didn’t take the time to study history. We often construct historical narratives that support a sense of cultural identity, and when there are dominant cultures, the historical narratives of other cultures are either distorted, or ignored to the point that most in the dominant culture are unaware that they even exist. Whitewashing is an obvious example of this phenomenon. In the dominant white culture, European-American narratives are often prioritized over those of people of color. Because of this, most white Americans miss out on learning that racism is systemic (not merely an individual attitude), and that “enlightenment values” contributed to some of the nastiest outcomes of colonialism.

In light of all of this, it is most reasonable to conclude that we are less likely to repeat the mistakes of history, so long as we have a more complete and accurate understanding of our history. For example, Marxists (especially of the Leninist and Stalinist varieties) promoted the Soviet-style command economy. However, history showed that such command economies caused famines and encouraged dictatorial regimes that killed millions. The final result was a two-class system: the ruling elite and a very poor population of survivors. Once “The West” learned from the Soviet Union’s mistakes, nationalization of industry became less popular, and many such policies were abandoned, thus preventing further suffering.


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