Since 2017 I study history at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. History and studying history is important, either for the individual as for society. In this blog post, I am going to explain what I did learn from two years of studying history. I am sure that I haven’t been taught completely yet. But I’ve been taught enough to make a long list with important lessons from history.
Labelling the history student
The study of history is associated with a lot of labels that society sticks on history students. People often say that ‘history is in the past and there is no need to study it for the future’. Besides that, people think the only career you can start with history is the one of the history teachers. Those assumptions are wrong.
Firstly, history is in the past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from the past. A society without history is like an individual without memory. Completely lost and no idea where to place himself in the line of time. When you have knowledge of the past, you can better understand and steer the future. We can learn a lot from history and it is completely unreasonable to argue that you can’t.
Secondly, it is wrong to think that you can only become a teacher with history. It’s not wrong at all if you want to become a teacher, but all I want to say is that it isn’t the only option. What’s more, you don’t even have to find a job within the field of study at all. I think it’s worth studying history for general knowledge alone. If you want to find a job in the department I’ve got many many options. Political functions, within the state, within political parties, museum functions, journalism, media functions, cultural functions, research functions, editor etc. The bottom line is that history students can become a lot. But I think that studies like history aren’t made for the career future of the individual. I think a study like history is more important because it teaches you so much about life, time, society, economy, religion and more.
1. Reality is too complex for language
The study of history is especially based on written sources. Historians read them with source criticism and they try to explain the past on basis of these sources as realistic as possible, in words. One huge problem is that this means that people from the past hand down their life experience in words. We have to interpret the words. As a result, we publish our thoughts on it. In words. Reality can’t be described in words. It’s always too complex. You don’t even get to hear one perspective, but a glimpse of it. Reality is complex, even in the past, and I think that’s beautiful. By learning that you can’t trust words because they never tell the whole story, you learn that you can never trust stories of other people. For example news articles, blog posts (oh no), books, lectures etc. All you can do is choose what to believe and what not. The else is living in the complex reality of the present and I think that’s what life’s all about.
2. Good and bad
It is important to know that the outcome of history and your position in it leads your opinion about what is good and what is bad. The Nazis are bad, but what if they won and Europa would be a huge nazi-state? I think we wouldn’t say Nazis are bad then (or maybe we do and we want to escape their domination), but do you see what I mean? There is a chance the Nazis would transform like the social laws of the 19th century transformed factory labour. Do you think the Nazi’s thought they were bad themselves? The point I want to make is that your location and place in history determine whether you find things good or bad.
Perspektivenübernahme (original German), standplaatsgebondenheid (Dutch) or historical empathy (English) is connected to point two. It is linked to the idea that people of different times think different things and see things otherwise. Their lives are very different. The past is like a foreign country, as one historian once said. To understand the past, we have to understand in what position people were in and why they make certain decisions. Why did someone as Luther want to transform the Church? Who was he, what was his knowledge, what was the church before him and in what way did he want to transform it? He wasn’t the first but continued a long tradition of church reformers. He had the knowledge that there were things wrong because he knew Biblical translations were wrong. He also wanted the Bible in vernacular, like many people before him. He thus paced himself in a long line instead of suddenly a-historically deciding to start a new church. (Which actually was an unintentional consequence of his criticism).
This empathy works in the present the same way. People around us seem to have different opinions and views of the world. Sometimes, we can’t even understand why people believe some things. Young Western people will have that feeling looking at populist-supporters, terrorists and anti-feminists (those are examples, please don’t be offended if you are). Their opinions, just like yours, is a cumulation of their life experiences. The way they were raised and by whom, the location they grew up, the school they went et cetera. If you grew up in a conservative family where your dad is a real ‘patriarch’ figure and your mother is subordinate, chances are that you think that is normal. That explains why you wish to see it in your future family as well. That’s why you get offended if feminism strikes.
The same is true for many other and smaller things. If your parents never drank any alcohol, chances are you aren’t going to drink in your youth as well. If your parents drank a lot and loved the party, chances are you are going out as well. The whole framework, where Jim Carrey talked about in my previous blog, gives you a perspective on the world you can hardly change. Probably you are comfortable with it. But, you can’t be right. Never. Because there is no right or wrong. (although, well, you know, if you want to hurt people to prove you’re right you did something terribly wrong. But hey, you ain’t unique. You are just like every other historical figure we now hate.)
4. So many lives
When you think of history in a traditional sense, you think of those prestigious men. Those who were the rulers of kingdoms and nations. Since the Annales historians in the middle of the 20th century, historians noticed that those men weren’t the only one who ever lived. Moreover, previous historians forgot about 1. The middle-class men 2. Woman! 3. Children 4. Low-class men and woman. 5. Seniors. 6. Well, they actually forgot about everyone except this hand full of historical actors.
You have to realise that every life in history has an own story. Every life had value in some way, not only for society but for history as a whole. History is so complex because every life was somehow connected to every other. They all fit like puzzle pieces into each other. Isn’t that beautiful? Every life has value in some way.
5. So many deads
With so many lives, there are many many deads too. People who die in various ways, more than you can ever imagine. You are going to die too.
Let me say that once again.
You are going to die.
It is your life and it’s ending one moment at a time. You can do two things with that. 1. Whine about it until you are dead. 2. Live the most amazing life ever because you are going to die anyway! Yes, knowing that you will die is liberating. It means that everything will end. Your life will end. The funny part is that you don’t know when and how. It all seems so obvious what I am telling, but people forget it so fast. The fact that you are dying means that you have to enjoy life to the fullest for every moment of your life because you never know when you are going to die. I mean it. History teaches us that people die. Except for Santa Claus everyone. So go enjoy your life!
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6. Everything changes
When looking back, the question arises if a historical actor thinks the same as a human in the present. The conclusion almost everytime is: biologically yes, but the rest no. As I said, because they live in a different context they see things in another light.
The context they live in, political, cultural, economic, social etc., constantly changes. That’s why we study history, to see the change every time. Look for example at fashion styles. They change almost every year. The same is for the minds of historical actors and the world they live in. Everything that’s connected in each world changes. Even nature.
So, once again, ENJOY THE FREAKING MOMENT! I hope that was clear haha. Every moment is unique. Now is already different from a second ago. People die every minute. People travel every minute. Some people get rich every minute. Some people get poor. Some people get a baby and some people lose a family member. Every minute is different. What do you think will change until you are 80 years old? I can’t tell you what, but I know that it will be a lot! Especially in this fast-changing world of the post-modern times. So, enjoy the time you are living in. It’s the first and the last time this time will occur.
7. The past is the past
We very often want to go back to previous times, when everything was better. We upgrade our youth and want to go back to that time. Sometimes we even upgrade a cultural past where we can find the ‘roots’ of modern time. Bullshit. I’ve been tricked many times myself, but I know it now. The past is in the past, will be in the past and will never be in the present again.
”Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” – Jay Gatsby
The big lesson of that amazing book/movie/remake is that you indeed can’t repeat the past. So, my advice to you is to let go of the past. Don’t try to forget it, because that’s impossible, but try to accept it. Be aware of it when the past creeps into the present and then check why that happens and how you can start to accept it. It goes the same with history. All we do is value what is important for us in history for the present day and we use history to try to accept things in the not-so-distant past.
8. Valuations are most of the time wrong
When I’ve learned one thing of history, it’s that assigning a positive value to past events often is based on an invented truth. So, those are lies.
It’s when you look back at that ‘good old’ childhood/past when you are lying to yourself. Why do humans tend to do that?
We use the past to explain the present. Or at least, to give our perspective on present scenarios an argumentation. We can twist the past to fit in the argument because no one can for sure check the past. Do you see now why it is so important that there are historians? To check the truth of claims of value by political actors on history.
9. Traditions always are invented
With the book ‘The Invention of Tradition’, Eric J. Hobsbowm made a huge step in the world of history. For the first time, historians saw traditions as invented in contrast to what most people believed. In his book, Hobsbowm shows us that people in the 19th Century literally invented traditions. You know the idea that every Scottish clan has its own checkered kilt? It’s made up. It is true that there were clans in Scotland who wore different kilts, but it isn’t true that those resemble the precise clans that were ‘made up’ in the 19th Century. The tradition was supposed to let people feel more Scottish. They had to see Scotland as a unique country with an own character. No offence to Scotland, I love Scotland. The same happened in other parts of the world, and it still happens to this day. For the Netherlands, the best example is the Batavian myth. Two thousand years ago, some tribes in the east of the Netherlands fought against the Romans. They won. No less than seventeen hundred years later, the Batavian Republic arose. People from The Hague and Amsterdam claimed that their ancestors were Batavians. Historically bullshit, but it worked to show that they were and always had been a rebellious community.
Traditions come and go, just like almost everything else in history. Santa Claus didn’t exist before 1800. The servant of the Dutch and Belgian Sinterklaas didn’t exist before the imperialistic area. Coincidence? I don’t think so. For the Dutch people younger than 20 years old. How many years is Het Sinterklaasjournaal on television? For the first time in 2001.
Look at what you value. You think traditions were there for thousands of years before. But they are not. They change with time. And they disappear when nobody needs them anymore as well.
10. You are not special
Through history, milliards of people were born and died. There are endless human lives to discover in history. So many people! And every life is interesting in its own way. But, the huge quantity of lives also means that your life isn’t that special as you thought. This may sound negative, but it is actually quite liberating! So many people through so many times did so many things. It doesn’t matter what you do in perspective to that. So, do whatever you want whenever you like! I mean, if it doesn’t really matter what you do because your life ‘isn’t that important for the whole of history’, then you can better do what you love!
I could write about this topic for hours! It’s the perfect mix of psychology and history for me, haha. I hope that you loved reading the text above and that you really learned new things from history. Not just abstract facts, but also things you can apply to your everyday life and the way you view the world. If you don’t agree with me, or you have any other remarks to make or questions to ask, please feel free to comment on this post. You can also send me a mail by filling in the contact form on the contact page if you would like to. Please subscribe to my email list, and spread the word to family and friends. I would love to reach more people. 🙂
The moment this post was posted, it was history that I wrote it. I made history by writing this post (oh my god)!
I feel really cool now.