“History” said Henry Ford, “is bunk.” As one who has written history for twenty-five years, and studied it for forty-five, I should largely agree with the great engineer who put half the world on wheels. History as studied in schools – history as a dreary succession of dates and kings, of politics and wars, of the rise and fall of states – this kind of history is verily a weariness of the flesh, stale and flat and unprofitable. No wonder so few students in school are drawn to it; no wonder so few of us learn any lessons from the past.
But history as man’s rise from savagery to civilization – history as the record of the lasting contributions made to man’s knowledge, wisdom, arts, morals, manners, skills – history as a laboratory rich in a hundred thousand experiments in economics, religion, literature, science, and government – history as our roots and our illumination, as the road by which we came and the only light that can clarify the present and guide us into the future – that kind of history is not “bunk;” it is, as Napoleon said on St. Helena, “the only true philosophy and the only true psychology.” Other studies may tell us how man might behave, or how he should behave; history tells us how he has behaved for six thousand years. One who knows that record is in large measure protected in advance against the delusions and disillusionments of his time. He has learned the limitations of human nature, and bears with equanimity the faults of his neighbors and the imperfections of states. He shares hopefully in the reforming enterprises of his age and people; but his heart does not break, nor his faith in life fade out, when he perceives how modest are the results, and how persistently man remains what he has been for sixty centuries, perhaps for a thousand generations. [Read more...]