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Why Study History?

Whether or not we remember the past, we're probably still 'doomed to repeat it.' But studying history has an enduring--and hopeful--purpose.

The idea that we should study history in order to learn from and prevent the mistakes of the past is a lovely notion but not an entirely convincing mandate. A cursory survey of major historical developments reveals that, in fact, we frequently make the same mistakes, even when theoretically we should ‘know better.’

A very silly example from my own life: I continue to consume popcorn at the movies when I know, with absolute certainty, that doing so will result in a horrible stomachache three hours later. I mean, I will feel like a porcupine is doing somersaults in my stomach, and I will fervently wish I’d just gotten the chocolate-covered peanuts instead. But the next time, I always get the popcorn anyway.

Is this a random folly, a single example of a foolish individual who refuses to heed the lesson of her history?

Well, back in 1912, the White Star Line said The Titanic was ‘designed to be unsinkable.’ As we all know, it sank on its maiden voyage. After this tragic outcome and massive loss of life (over 1,500 of the over 2,200 passengers perished), the press latched onto this phrase with the fervor of a starving infant, and the words ‘unsinkable’ and ‘The Titanic’ have since been inextricably linked in history, a stark and horrific reminder of the price of hubris.

Did we ‘learn our lesson’ about the perils of grandiosity? Not really. Just two years after the ocean liner sank, British author H.G. Wells purportedly popularized the term ‘war to end war’ in relation to World War I. He was one of a number of prominent authors the British government apparently recruited to infuse patriotic sentiments into their work, thus drumming up support for a war that, four years later, would leave 9 million soldiers and an estimated 12 million civilians dead and another 21 million soldiers wounded.

Oh, and twenty years later, we had World War II.

Shortly after that came the Korean War, then the Vietnam War, etc. This isn’t a commentary on whether or not these, or any other, wars were necessary or just. I’m observing that they keep happening, even though at one time we imagined that we could end them.

Even if, by studying history, it were possible to stop making the same mistakes, we’d make other ones. Because making mistakes is a defining characteristic of the human condition. We all make them. Whether large or small, mistakes are inevitable.

If studying history doesn’t prevent us from making mistakes, what does it enable?

This week, I visited the Fairfield Museum and History Center (FMHC) at 370 Beach Road in Fairfield, where they are currently showing a retrospective of photojournalist and Connecticut resident Bill Eppridge’s work. His iconic images, which are on display until Aug. 28, capture seminal events of the 1960s that, though I didn’t live through them, shaped the world I live in today.

Photographs on display include 12-year old Ben Chaney with his mother at the 1964 funeral of his brother, civil rights activist James Chaney. Ku Klux Klan members, in collusion with law enforcement, murdered Chaney along with two other activists, who were working to register African-American voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer.

The exhibit also features Eppridge’s photos of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, including images taken immediately after he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel. The breathtaking curating (which also includes campaign paraphernalia, LIFE Magazine covers, and Eppridge’s equipment) tells the story of the day. Images show Kennedy walking through the hotel’s kitchen, busboy Juan Romeo kneeling over him moments after the shooting, and Ethel Kennedy clasping him in her arms as personnel swarm the scene.

This combination of art and history provides me with a tangible link to events that are not mine through experience but through legacy.

Director of Exhibitions and Programs Kathleen Bennewit, noted that FMHC—which lies in the heart of historic Fairfield, on the site of the original town green where Roger Ludlowe founded Fairield in 1639 and which then included what we now call Westport—is moving towards a more regional focus. This strikes me as entirely appropriate when we consider that our towns weren’t always separate. When we talk about the history of Fairfield, we are also talking about the history of Westport as well as other surrounding towns.

And even if it wasn’t my ancestors whose houses the British burned to ash in 1779, for as long as I live here, I’m part of the history of this town, and so the events of both the past and the present belong, in part, to me too. We’re not connected by blood or even by traditions or events but by an idea that is forever evolving in the hands of those who live here.

In this way, we are all connected, and there is hope in this. Though I probably will still order the popcorn next time I’m at the movies.

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