Light from the Past

Dylan ZhangSeptember 11, 2023Now and ThenFeatures

Artwork by Arina Stetsiuk, age 14, Ukraine

When we encounter the past, whether on a plaque in front of a statue or in a textbook, we aren’t just reading some words, we are gleaning knowledge from our forefathers, like carrying on a torch handed to us by our ancestors.

In doing so, we realize the need to comb through the past, and see how history holds immense importance in our lives, extending far beyond just another school subject. Our knowledge of the past impacts us on a profound level, shaping our identities, guiding our decisions, and providing us with valuable lessons for the future.

History offers us a profound understanding of how societies have evolved over time. By studying historical events, social movements, and cultural shifts, we gain insight into the factors that have shaped present-day society. For example, we can look throughout history to see how forms of government have changed and influenced the societies of today. Whether by studying monarchies of old or more recent fledgling democracies, we can recognize the roots of societal changes, appreciate the progress that we have made, and identify areas where further growth is needed. In addition, we can see how certain groups of societies have persevered while some have emerged and then faded. For example, we can learn how the ancient democracy of the Greek city-state Athens fell, and identify the problems with that early form of government. The study of history enables us to navigate contemporary issues with a deeper understanding of their historical context, allowing for more informed discussions and meaningful progress. Just as we see the evolution of societies, we can look into the experiences of people that make up those societies.

History serves as a gateway to the diverse range of human experiences throughout time. By delving into the past, we gain invaluable insights into the triumphs, struggles, and challenges faced by different societies, cultures, and individuals. In doing so, we become witnesses to the tapestry of human existence, fostering empathy and expanding our perspectives. For instance, take something like the Holocaust. By studying and reading about this event in history books or memoirs like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, we gain insight into the suffering and difficulties faced by individuals of that time. While doing so, we glean the dark side of humanity, which serves as a warning to future generations about the limitless boundaries of human nature, for better or worse. Through the study of history, we develop a deep appreciation for the complexities of the human condition and enhance our ability to relate to people from different backgrounds. However, not only do we expand our worldview, we learn valuable knowledge to prevent repeating the same disastrous mistakes all over again.

By meticulously examining the causes and consequences of historical events, we can identify patterns, understand the factors that led to successes or failures, and make more informed decisions in the present. For instance, moments in the Cold War, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, can lead us to rethink how to be flexible and open to communication, and moments in war where atrocities are committed can cause us to identify new humanitarian ideals. In addition, we can see how different governmental policies had different effects, or how certain methods of approaching economic or healthcare problems led to different outcomes. For example, we can see how and why policies succeeding the American Civil War caused a huge racial divide with lasting consequences in the United States, or how economic policies during and after World War I led to the start of the Great Depression. History offers us a wealth of knowledge, enabling us to navigate the complexities of contemporary challenges with wisdom and foresight. Not only does it serve as a guidebook for shaping our future by providing valuable lessons and cautionary tales, it also shapes and preserves our very identities and cultures.

Our understanding of history plays a pivotal role in shaping individual and collective identities. It connects us to our cultural heritage and provides us with a sense of belonging. I for one, by understanding the Chinese culture of my parents and their forebears, have come to adopt many traditions and habits, from small things like using chopsticks to larger events like celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival. In doing so, I came to piece together my sense of self. Whether it is about unique festivals or cultural behaviors, through the study of history, we gain a deep appreciation for our shared traditions, values, and narratives. We come to understand the struggles and achievements of our ancestors, recognizing the legacies they have left behind. By embracing our historical roots, we develop a stronger sense of identity and cultural pride, fostering a more cohesive and inclusive society. In addition, studying history ensures the preservation of collective memory. It safeguards the significant events, achievements, and contributions of individuals and societies from fading into oblivion. By preserving the past, we honor the legacies of those who came before us, acknowledge their contributions, and gain a deeper appreciation for our shared human heritage. History provides a connection to our roots and reminds us of the struggles and sacrifices that have shaped the world we inhabit today.

History cultivates critical thinking and analytical skills that are indispensable in navigating the complexities of the modern world. The study of primary and secondary sources, evaluation of evidence, and the development of reasoned arguments all contribute to our intellectual growth. Examining historical events requires us to analyze multiple perspectives, challenge our assumptions, and uncover biases. These skills are not confined to the realm of history alone, but extend to various fields, such as research, law, and journalism. Studying history equips us with the ability to assess information critically, think independently, and make informed judgments. These skills are especially important when students grow up and enter society.

The study of the past transcends the status of merely another school subject. Our knowledge of history impacts us on a profound level, enriching our lives and changing our future. Through the study of history, we gain a deeper understanding of human experiences, learn from past mistakes, shape our identity, hone necessary skills, and preserve our legacy.

Dylan Zhang is an 11-year-old boy born in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Now he is a sixth grader at Hong Kong International School. He plays violin and likes to play Ping Pong and badminton.