Essay Topic 1: “The study of history places too much emphasis on individuals. The most significant events and trends in history were made possible not by the famous few, but by groups of people whose identities have long been forgotten.”
Essay 1: Admittedly, history was not made by a few key individuals, but by the multitude of varied factors that led to events participated in by countless people. However, when we open out history books, we will find that only a handful of people are recorded.
Regardless, the emphasis on the individuals, in my opinion, is reasonable.
Most events came into play because of the astute planning, decision and actions of a handful of key individuals who had the courage, determination, leadership, foresight and wisdom to lead. Only under their leadership were the masses organized and mobilized towards a particular objective. These were the people who inspired other people into action. For example, it was not until the appearance of Martin Luther did people begin to openly criticize the Catholic Church, and it eventually led to the Reformation of Roman Catholic Church and subsequently helped the European masses and eventually the Americans to gain civil rights.
After the French Revolution, there was chaos within France and Austria was threatening its territories. It took the actions of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, to establish order and reconstruct the country of France with the establishment of a civil code and a formidable army to simultaneously conquer its neighboring countries plundering their wealth and drafting their men into his own army. Moreover, progress in some fields, such as philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, arts, biology and so on, are attributable to few sage people. For instance, pasteurization, one of the most important milestones in medical history, was the result of the unrelenting research of the chemist, Louis Pasteur. Take the example of Thomas Alva Edison as well. While he had a team to complete his experiments, the vision and the technical know-how was his alone.
In addition, we value people on the basis of the efforts they made. The bellwethers who made greater contributions to the history are supposed to be representatives of the masses. Let’s look at the artists. When it comes to sculpture, Michelangelo and his colossal figure of “David” are engraved in our minds. Similarly, Claude Monet is easily the first person who comes to mind when we talk of the Impressionist period. The art would not have developed into a genre of its own had it not been for the efforts of a thousand other painters, but realistically, we admire the famous few because of their significant achievements.
Finally, even if a whole multitude of people contributed to the accomplishment of a particular event, to record everyone in the historical books is much too consuming and would make no sense. For example, the Civil War would not have occurred at all if not for the numerous soldiers and slaves fighting together and against each other. To obtain information for each of these individuals, to get their stories will cost too much energy and time. Further, chances are this over attention to details covering thousands of biographies of people will obscure the cause-and-effect relationship that history is chiefly concerned about. On the other hand, if we pay attention on the famous few, the event can be highlighted, studied and evaluated even closely based on the contributions and efforts of a famous few, and thus remembrance of the significant events would be more enduring and the lessons more focused.
Nonetheless, it is an injustice if we are to ignore the contributions of the masses on history and yet, as Plekhanov had concluded, “An individual’s character is a ‘factor’ in social development…only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be.” Individuals cannot exert their will independent of the social condition in which they find themselves. An example in point is socialism, a system of economy visualized by Owen in the early 19th century. It would not have been realized had the economy not evolved.
To sum up, history, all of the events, people, inventions, theories that had come to pass and were developed, is driven by the multitude as well as the famous few who achieved significant accomplishments. Individuals, the multitude and environmental conditions all together play important roles in the development of history. However, for the reasons stated above, we keep records of only a select few. But at the same time, we should not neglect the effect of the mass on history itself.
Essay Topic 2: “So much is new and complex today that looking back for an understanding of the past provides little guidance for living in the present.”
Essay 2: Does looking back for the past provide little guidance for living in the present? The speaker claims so, for the reason that so much is new and complex today. I agree with the allegation insofar as that we cannot deal with current problems while fully utilizing history as reference. However, I do not agree that studying history is useless.
Our world, admittedly, has gone through striking changes. We are confronted with myriad new problems and challenges never encountered or recorded in history before. For instance, the development of technology has brought the specter of human cloning more into the realm of reality than science fiction and high-speed innovations in science and economy has led to the economic globalization and trading is no longer a matter of cash for products. The improvement in communication due to fiber optics leading to faster internet access, telecom and other media render the new problem of information overload. New diseases are cropping up and endangering our lives such as SARS and the bird flu which threatened the modern world and whose spread was aided by the ease of travel by the unknowing carriers. History does not have these in their books and thus we could not have tackled these problems by referring totally to the past.
Notwithstanding the foregoing concession, I nevertheless disagree that retrospect of the past provides little guidance for the contemporary society. History, in the first place, shows us some social problems’ rootstock. We cannot deny that some enduring issues, such as violence, war, have puzzled every society. Numerous policies and laws have been passed and implemented, yet these problems still exist. Looking back to history helps us understand how these issues developed and changed in different periods. It helps us summarize the essential points and evaluate under the appropriate conditions. Only by analyzing the origin of these issues and how each policy influenced these issues, can we find the optimum solutions to these problems.
Furthermore, besides the origin of some issues, history shows us the trend of society’s development—democracy and peace. When reviewing history, we see the trail of development of human society from autocracy to democracy. A lesson learned is that we will fail if we are to move in the opposite direction. The disorganization of Soviet Russia and the major upheavals in east Europe are telling us that the society is impossible to go back the autocracy. Moreover, by looking back to the past, we will find that stability and peace are invaluable. The Second World War which had impeded development and resulted in economic depression not counting the hundreds of thousand lives lost, is a case in point. To accelerate economic and social development, war and aggression is not the answer but peaceful negotiations and fair, non-discriminatory cooperation.
Finally, history provides experiences and lessons for the modern society. “The Art of War”, written by an ancient Chinese author Sun Tzu, serves as an apt illustration. Up to now, his writings provide essential information and guidance such that numerous armed forces commanders as well as the commercial leaders use it to help them operate more efficiently and effectively. Another example is Robert Owen, an idealist who once attempted to establish a perfect world where people receive equal benefits and opportunities. It was to be a utopia where there would be no war and hunger. His world failed. This failure tells us that the development of society should not merely concentrate on economic development as society’s motivation is not just one thing but a multitude of factors. If we persist in single-mindedness to lead society, it will only just follow the same old disastrous road of idealism.
To sum up, study of history shows us the origin of issues and the trend of social development. It relates experiences and imparts lessons. When tackling with problems today, it is prudent to refer to history to see what has been done, what was successful, what was not and study what led to the failure. Nevertheless, it is important as well that history should not hold us back, that we should not base decisions solely because that was what was done in the past. Let us take heed of the famous axiom to “Learn from the past, live in the present and look to the future.”
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