Currently, our nation is wrestling with mind boggling problems relating to our 250-year history. The issues are complex and unfortunately highly charged with confrontational politics. In this wilderness, it is helpful to acquire some perspective on the very nature of history which may offer a way toward balancing and objective assessments for all sides in an efforts to find common ground.

Unlike mathematics, chemistry, music, physics, etc. which are all systems and theories produced by the human mind, history is not a system nor is it a theory, though theories about history prevail. Humans participate in history but do not fully control it. History is everything that happened in the past and thus the most complex field of study. In fact, it is so complex as to preclude childhood geniuses from achieving fame as they do now and than in math, music, physics, etc. And the best history is written by scholars who are older and have acquired a perspective on life.

The following themes illuminate somewhat the nature of history. They can guide us toward an increased understanding of our national history and also, surprisingly enough, can benefit our personal lives.

1. Almost all events in history outpace total understanding and thus improved or full understanding occurs after an event, i.e. hindsight is 20/20 vision. This means we are born before we know it and receive our names before we are informed what prompted them and what they mean. 

2. Ignorance prevails throughout history and impacts on our lives more than knowledge. Most events we engage in are largely based upon ignorance. We buy homes and cars based mostly on ignorance. Even our weddings are largely based upon ignorance though few would admit it during a happy and wonderful moment.

3. Major events in history generally have insignificant beginnings. Slavery started insignificantly in 1619 and the independence movement began in a tavern in Virginia when some people discussed what to do about British taxation.

4. All of history is a constant process of solving problems though too often the solutions in themselves cause new problems. Industrialization raised the living standard but spread vast pollution. 

5. While global cultures vary significantly, global politics tends to be highly similar. Unfortunately, politics solves problems too often on the basis of power and influence and not on the basis of ethics and morality, thus precluding much progress in that area. Essentially, politics is the control over people through the potential use of coercion. 

6. Irony, defined as the difference between what one would expect and what actually happens, is very concrete in history. If we proclaimed ourselves to be the Land of Liberty with justice for all one would not expect the expansion of slavery and the maltreatment of the Natives.

7. Too often in political history or even at the personal level a given pattern or policy will not stop until an overwhelming event forces it. Slavery was not stopped until the overwhelming event of the Civil War. Russian Communism was not ended until economic disarray and the cost of military adventure in Afghanistan caused its collapse. British global imperialism did not retreat until economic burdens and colonial uprising prompted it. Our bid for global military domination and control won’t end until the opportunity cost of tens of trillions spent on it since World War II will be viewed as the top cause of our never ending economic relative decline.

This is one of the most crucial issue which D.C. and the media need to focus on. Correcting it would raise the living standard, allow more focusing on environmental issue and thus would serve the well-being of all Americans. It would contribute to easing our current intense discontent and confrontational politics and entail hopefully a more balanced and objective historical assessment. And in this complex and crucial issue one should not wait until an overwhelming event forces corrective measures.

Ottumwan Siegfried "Sig" H. Sutterlin, who has earned a doctorate in history from the University of Minnesota, is a former senior Fulbright scholar in Europe and retired history instructor at Indian Hills Community College. He can be reached at

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