Thursday, May 7, 2009

Knowing Facts Does Not Always = Understanding

One of my favorite phrases a few years back was, "pump the brakes!" I usually reserved this phrase for friends or colleagues who would get carried away on a slippery slope of any topic and carry it further than its intended point. What I meant by this was, slow down, think about what you are saying...don't get carried away by your emotions. But, to be honest, to those of us who are passionate about history, that is sometimes easier said than done.

Historical knowledge can be tricky. It is one thing to say something and be able to correct it, but it's another when it's in print for the world to read. By then it is usually too late to hit the "delete," or old "back space" key. That is why I think it is all that much more important to understand history contextually instead of just factually.

For example, sure, its good to know that the battle of Antietam happened on September 17, 1862. But, more importantly is why that battle is so important to our nation's history. It is important because there were some 23,000 causalities in that one day of fighting; it is important because it provided the opportunity for President Lincoln to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (a very important document even if you disagree what it actually accomplished); it is important because it probably helped prevent European recognition of the Confederacy. If you only know that the battle happened on that day at Sharpsburg, Maryland then you're missing the "big picture," and left without a true understanding

Putting together the puzzle pieces of history is what makes it so fascinating to me. Rarely are events independent. Usually there is some earlier precipitating factor that causes action. Seeing the themes and major shifts over time is what makes history relevant. People and events of the past do in fact shape our current existence. Our lives are built on the foundations that were put down long ago. Now, that doesn't mean that we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. By knowing the whole story (not just the facts) and understanding the context of events of where past people went wrong helps us make better decisions today in the least I hope so.

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