Reasons to study history: the past is alive

Commentary

James LeVan, Staff

When I was growing up, my parents did not keep any alcohol in the house. There was no beer in the fridge for my father to drink while he watched Sunday football, my mother would not sip wine with friends. They never went to beer distributors or liquor stores. In fact, I can only recall maybe one or two times that I ever saw them drink alcohol at a party. There were few things my parents were admittingly strict about as far rules went. Alcohol was one of them and they made it clear that I wasn’t allowed to drink until I turned 21. All of this has led me to have a weird relationship with alcohol. I don’t drink during the semester and only at night with food. I’m sure some reading this will not believe me when it comes to my impressive control of alcohol. Drinking always made me feel ashamed, as though I was doing something amoral and, worried about my mental health during this hellish year, I decided to give up drinking entirely.

My weird relationship with alcohol and my parent’s abstinence from it has always been a curiosity. Why did my parents dislike alcohol so much? My parents gave me and my brother plenty of freedom as we were growing up. So why was alcohol the big issue? I got my answer recently when talking to a distant cousin after the death of my grandfather. She informed me about my great-grandfather and his marriage to my great-grandmother was an unhappy one (from all accounts my great-grandmother was a borderline psychopath and I am not exaggerating that). He hated his wife and used alcohol to numb the pain of being married to her. In one drunken stupor, he decided to run away from his family in Philadelphia and went on a bender all the way to New York. His brother had to track him down up there and bring him back. His brother once again had to rescue him when one night he got drunk and punched a hole in a wall and he had to come over and make sure he didn’t kill my great-grandmother. I never knew my great-grandfather, he died before my father was born. However, his difficult marriage and the drinking created a ripple effect through time — my parents raising me in a dry house and my own awkward feelings toward alcohol today.

Whether we like it or not, we all feel the effects of the past on our lives. Every part of our environment (physical, political, cultural, economic) is the product of the actions of people who made decisions that we still feel even though many of them have passed and their names are not active in our public memory. In that regard, they act as ghosts haunting and whispering to us from beyond the grave. If the past is such a powerful force on us, then does that mean we should study history?

In all my years of studying history, I have come across dozens of reasons for the past. So many, in fact, that if I were to try and list them, I fear that I would lose your attention and push the word limit (which I do often). So, I will make this piece the first in what I hope will be a series of pieces advocating for my fellow explorers to take courses with our wonderful history faculty and even possibly dual major or major in history. My argument here is that events do not just happen in a vacuum. They have consequences and those consequences can transcend the distance of decades and affect us today. In the story above, I mention my great-grandfather and the hardship he endured and how that has led to my parent’s strictness when it came to drinking and to my own decision to abstain from alcohol. Learning my own family’s history showed me that there was a reason for our weirdness towards drinking. Professional historians, of course, do this as well, but on a more societal level — they find ways to show that the worlds they study are speaking to us now.

After the September 11 attacks, historians of ancients Greece and Rome felt their work had become relevant and that the conflicts between the United States and the Middle East were part of a pattern stretching back to the wars between the Persian Empire and the states of Athens and Sparta and how the Greek historian Herodotus framed these conflicts in his work. Or, to use an example from this decade, scholars have been making many connections between modern problems of police brutality and racial injustice and the racist policies and hierarchies that were put in place during the Antebellum and Jim Crow eras of American History to prevent Black Americans from achieving true equality in the United States.

Studying history allows us to better understand how the actions of those from yesterday are still affecting us now, allowing us to perhaps even one day break the chains of conflict and oppression and build something better. Or, at the very least, it will help us steer us into a better direction. Regardless, if you want to better understand this phenomenon, I strongly recommend that you take some history courses here at La Salle during your academic careers. If nothing else, you’ll see that we are just one link in a chain that has been forged long before any of us living now were born.

levanj1@lasalle.edu

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