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Why (Older Folks) Study History?

Why (Older Folks) Study History?

As part of a project aimed at discussing what (if anything) studying history does for wellbeing, I thought it would be relevant to ask a group of people actively engaged in a learning in retirement program (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, linked to George Mason University) what they thought. I have some experience asking, and thinking about, why young people should study history (critical thinking, building arguments, awareness of the complexity of change, comparative perspectives, you know the drill). But it’s obvious, for anyone participating in learning in retirement efforts, that interest in history courses spontaneously runs pretty high in this domain, so I thought that some assessment might be revealing.

Here’s a first cut, based on a number of thoughtful responses. Several communications emphasized that learning history is simply interesting. From a respondent who noted he consumes lots of history, mainly through TV selections and DVDs that range through various topics and time periods: “Without these sources of interesting information, founts of knowledge and yes: entertainment, my ‘well-being’ would be greatly diminished. History is fascinating and instructive. It clearly contributes to the quality of my life.” Another response connects history with his own long life, perhaps an additional component. “I listened to the history presentations, joined in the discussions, and had a minor epiphany. I had lived through a lot of history! From my experiences I gained…the means of refreshing or learning anew the events of history. It has certainly enhanced my well-being.”

A number of responses, though in various ways, emphasized wider perspectives, particularly (as most said, one way or another, in these “troubled times”). One respondent noted several layers of perspective: what one has lived through directly, and the knowledge that we have survived the troubles of earlier decades; the larger history of the nation, and again the perspectives gained through exploring, for example, the various motivations for the Civil War; and finally a knowledge of the larger history of many earlier civilizations, and how “nations have survived and regained their moral leadership after corrupt emperors, mad kings and morally bankrupt prime ministers. At the moment, this knowledge keeps me sane.”

In a similar vein, a respondent emphasizes that history shows how all sorts of craziness can be endured and overcome. “We have had similar circumstances in the past” when wars, or racial conflict, or economic conditions, or immigration tensions have been “off the rails.” “The study of history reveals that we have been able to work those things out” (though he notes also, not always without a lot of hardship – as in the Civil War). There is, in many of these responses, a sense that history rescues us from the “tyranny of the present,” with its seemingly endless list of problems and tensions.

Another respondent sees history as context, which can add to our “feeling of well-being.” He contrasts what we can learn from history with the flood of bad news that currently dominates the airwaves and media feeds. “It could make a person think that we are living in the worst and most dangerous time in history.” But he notes how easy it is to find far more horrible moments in the past – major wars, epidemics. Nothing on that scale describes our situation today. “We who are living today certainly face difficult challenges, some that threaten our existence. Yet, by studying the steady advances of the human race over the centuries, we can attain a measure of optimism about our ability to meet these challenges. This optimism can add to our feeling of well-being.”

Along the same lines, but with more specific reference to immigrant and working-class experiences of the past, “seeing what my ancestors went through had made me even more appreciative that I was lucky enough to have been born…at a time when the basic standard of living, even for the poor, far outweighed what was the norm for my ancestors.” This respondent goes on to bemoan that loss of adequate historical knowledge for the young, that will make them less appreciative of the gains that mark their lives in contrast with the past.

So my sense is, from these thoughtful if scattered responses: for some older folks, the opportunity to put one’s own life in fuller context; a strong sense that history shows how troubles can be overcome; an impressively Whiggish belief that history shows that, on the whole, things have improved and that we can gain confidence from this – all provide components that, again for this group at least, actively contribute to a greater sense of well-being.

I offer these comments first to thank the respondents to date, but also to encourage other reflections from a group of history fans to whom we may not pay adequate attention as we worry mainly about trying to fill our college classes. Obviously, we don’t need to sell this particular audience on the relevance of history for job-seeking. On the other hand, there may be some appreciations from this group that could be discussed with younger folks as well.

(Thanks specifically to Randall Scott, Ray Beery, Janine Greenwood, William Forster, Joyce Simmons, Bill Taylor and the OLLI staff.)