From Mr. Johnston’s talks on living history for the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries, the International Museum Theater Alliance, and the Association of Living History Farms and Museums.

Why History?

Ken Johnston

We humans are natural storytellers; this means that we are, by nature, historians. How so? Our earliest oral traditions—songs, spoken narratives, sagas, and chants—tell stories of things past. Our earliest scratches on cave walls tell stories. Our earliest dances use movement to tell stories. Our earliest religions and mythologies tell sacred and profane stories. A part of all these varied methods of storytelling shares a common purpose—to perpetuate and preserve that which came before, so that what once was alive for a family, tribe, peoples or culture remains living and remembered for those descendants who come after in time or distance. These stories, regardless at times of literal facts, are history—that living sense of the past that resonates within us as humans.

The clichéd reason usually given for the study of or importance of history is those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it—in reality, of course, this only applies to school students; if you don’t study history you’ll repeat it, next year, after failing the class. No, that cliché of do not study/doomed to repeat is what could charitably described as spurious (and colloquially as BS). It presumes only negatives will repeat; why shouldn’t we be doomed to repeat the Renaissance or the Enlightenment if we don’t study history—or not repeat them if we do? The saying doesn’t work in the real world, it isn’t practical. If a practical reason is needed for the study of history, there’s a very simple one—so you won’t be fooled. By studying history an informed citizenry can know when it is being lied to, hood-winked or sold a bill of goods. By studying history the informed citizen can exercise critical thinking skills and call foul when confronted with manipulations and distortions of fact for a hidden, or not so hidden agenda—whether it’s denying the Holocaust, co-opting the words of the Founders, or claiming Slavery had nothing to do with 19th century American History. The study and dissemination of history is the first line of defense against lies, willful ignorance, and folly.

So be it for practical reasons of self-interest or universal human feelings of connection with what has come before, history is important—now.