Why We Study History: To Know Where To Push

We are not the first to inhabit this earth. Others came before us. They left behind art treasures and air pollution, medical discoveries and epidemics, prosperity and famine, porno houses and churches.

The British architect Sir Christopher Wren designed a town hall building for the city of Windsor. Upon completion, municipal inspectors rejected it. “There are not enough pillars to hold up the building,” they protested. No amount of evidence and argument would change their minds. Finally, Sir Christopher ordered four additional columns installed, each identical to the others except for one thing: none touched the ceiling. The authorities were fooled, the lord mayor was satisfied, the bill was paid, and the four useless columns stand to this day.

Every new generation arrives with a set of blueprints in hand for its own distinctive structures. Out of egotism and idealism, but mostly from ignorance, its children search for the structures erected by previous generations to demolish in order to clear away space for their own. They may push at anything standing—“challenging authority” we call it—to see what is weak and what is strong. Like the original columns of Windsor, some of the structures they find are load-bearing and essential to the safety and well-being of society. Other structures stand like Wren’s unneeded columns—strictly cosmetic, there for appearance or pleasure or for a need that no longer exists and may be dismantled and replaced without harm to anyone.


Down at ground level, it’s hard to tell what’s load-bearing and what’s cosmetic. That’s why, before we demolish ancient institutions to clear off new ground, we want to learn about the people who built them—who they were and the reasons they did what they did. The more we learn, the higher we are elevated, so to speak, until eventually we can see where the structures are connected, or, are not connected, which ones are vital, and which may be safely removed without injury or loss to humanity.

I was born in 1940 and came of age in the turbulent Sixties. That decade saw a whole generation of young adults storming “the establishment” intending to topple structures they regarded as out-dated and unneeded. Some of the institutions were indeed corrupt and needed to go. Many needed purging and purifying. All of them could stand a good going-over with searching questions and penetrating examinations. But many structures were essential to a workable society. The problem was that these youths who had just arrived on the scene did not know which was which. Some would have jettisoned the church, the family, the school, even government itself. While churches, homes, and teaching institutions are not without problems and require scrutiny and purifying in every generation, to destroy them would plunge the world into darkness and chaos.

Fortunately, God has so ordered life that no generation arrives with a clean playing field. The old folks—those of us in our forties and fifties and beyond—are still around to defend our construction and those of our ancestors from the indiscriminate pushings of the young. Personally, I admit to a fiendish pleasure in watching the children of the Sixties defending the “status quo” against the attacks of their offspring who see everything in place when they arrived as archaic, uncool, and desperately in need of replacement. What goes around comes around.

Mankind is always one generation away from the abyss. If we do not find out who came before us and why they acted as they did, we will discard everything we do not understand, and eventually end up rubbing two sticks together looking for fire.

“Do not move the ancient boundary,” Proverbs 23:10 orders. Those demarcations were put there for a purpose.

“Thus says the Lord,

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