Why do we study history? When we are ignorant of the past, we tend to treat past beliefs as outdated and irrelevant, no matter how wise, and to uncritically accept present trends as good and true, no matter how foolish. Ozark Christian College Professor of History Rick Cherok, PhD, shares his thoughts on why we study history as Christians.
If you haven’t asked the question yourself, you’ve probably heard someone else ask it: “Why do I need to study history?” After all, isn’t history all about looking at the lives of dead people and things that happened long ago? And does it really mean anything at all to us today? Henry Ford, the great industrialist, once said,
“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
In many ways, our modern culture has accepted the notion that there is little value in the study of the past. Many colleges and universities around the world have replaced traditional history classes with advocacy courses that are often called “studies” (i.e., Environmental Studies, Queer Studies, Feminist Studies, etc.). And, while some of these areas of research may provide meaningful insights into the past, often these courses are designed only to promote and advance an ideological agenda.
One recent report notes that several major American universities have dropped all courses that focus on war, referring to classes that examine World War II or the Vietnam War as “warnography.” For many people, historical study has devolved from a discipline that explores the past to provide context, insights, direction, and understanding about the significant questions of our age, into a series of activist courses designed to promote a personal perspective or an ideological view.
Why do we study history? “Historical study has devolved…into a series of activist courses designed to promote a personal perspective or an ideological view.”
Perhaps the primary contributor to this growing neglect for concern about history and heritage is what C.S. Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery.” Lewis described this concept as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” Notice the two characteristics that Lewis used to create his definition of “chronological snobbery.” Both of these characteristics are very important to understanding the growing disregard for history in the current age.
Uncritical Acceptance of the Present
First, he wrote, it is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age.” In this era of instantaneous mass communication, we are continually bombarded with false information that is often accepted as truth with little or no critical analysis. And in some instances, these truth claims receive such a wide hearing that they gain a status of unquestioned reliability.
Why do we study history? “We are continually bombarded with false information that is often accepted as truth with little or no critical analysis.”
For example, it’s not at all uncommon to hear someone say, “More people have died in wars fought over religion than over any other cause.” Yet, even a cursory review of history and warfare will demonstrate that this statement is patently false.
Another common notion that is uncritically accepted is that historical accounts cannot be trustworthy because “history is written only by the victors.” Once again, this is simply not true. A statement such as this ignores the fact that there are usually many contributors to our understanding of the past and that the people and events of history are continually being re-examined, re-interpreted, and often re-written as additional information becomes available.
Unfair Discrediting of the Past
Lewis further described “chronological snobbery” as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” The mere fact that an idea is no longer fashionable, Lewis went on to explain, actually “tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”
Theologian Elton Trueblood contended that “one of the reigning tenets of our time is the extreme belief that all our problems are new.” He referred to this concept as “the disease of contemporaneity” and declared it one of the great problems of our age. Proponents of this belief assume that the scientific and technological advances of the current age make the present society superior to all that has gone before. They fail to see, however, that the nature of humanity has not changed and the basic human struggles of the past are the same struggles that people encounter today.
Why do we study history? “The nature of humanity has not changed and the basic human struggles of the past are the same struggles that people encounter today.”
Among the outcome of “chronological snobbery” and the failure to assign value to the past is the rejection of the traditional Christian standards of life and morality, if not the rejection of Christianity itself, and for no other reason than that they are old.
Then, emboldened by the popularity of the current age’s claims about life and morality—claims that have all-too-often been uncritically accepted as truth—many in our society are quick to vilify Christianity and the biblical teachings about life and morality as archaic, out of date, and no longer relevant. And in so doing, they promote their newfound personal ideologies and express moral indignation to those who have gone before them and have had differing ideas. Marc Barnes correctly asserts,
“Moral arrogance and historical ignorance reinforce one another. To ennoble ourselves, we make irrational barbarians out of our ancestors and ignore the complexities of their times.”
Why do we study history? “Many in our society are quick to vilify Christianity and the biblical teachings about life and morality as archaic, out of date, and no longer relevant.”
Rather than assuming that history is merely ancient dates, stories of dead people, and events that happened long, long ago, we must remember that the past provides a perspective to life that cannot be obtained by simply repeating the notions that have become common to our age. “Forgetting the past,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “is like turning our most intimate teacher against us.” So, in the words of C.S. Lewis,
“We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
Why do we study history? “The past provides a perspective to life that cannot be obtained by simply repeating the notions that have become common to our age.”
 Chicago Tribune, May 1916. Interestingly, Ford opened Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, as an outdoor history museum some thirteen years after making his famous statement.
 Max Hastings, “American Universities Declare War on Military History,” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-01-31/max-hastings-u-s-universities-declare-war-on-military-history?fbclid=IwAR0usdHSJRphEZNWCNZpT_c7P7SxrlB7GQiCMiR-IkUNv1LzxIBwbC8o-hU.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (London: Goeffrey Bles, 1955), 196.
 Henry, Carl F.H. Interview with D. Elton Trueblood. “Ideas that Shape the American Mind,” Christianity Today (January 7, 1967): 3-12.
 Marc Barnes, “Historical Ignorance, Moral Arrogance,” First Things, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/12/historical-ignorance-moral-arrogance.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 58-59.
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