How do we decide what is important to learn about the past?
There is a plethora of events that happened in the past, but only a few are deemed significant enough to learn. One of the characteristics of a significant event is that the event results in change and causes consequences for masses of people for a long period of time. For example, there have been countless numbers of disease outbreaks in the world, but only a few have been significant enough to be discussed, such as the Black Death. The Black Death caused significant changes to over two hundred million people, half of the world’s population at that time, killing at least seventy million of them and starting the Renaissance in Europe. Since the Black Death had such drastic effects for many people for a long time, it is considered significant.
Additionally, events that reveal issues, such as racism, discrimination, or lack of proper safety, are significant as they shed light on undesirable events, so that we are not condemned to repeat them again, such as the lack of safety in the Triangle Fires, which resulted in the death of over one hundred workers.
Historical significance also depends on whether the event fits within the narrative of the past. As the name suggests, history is a “story” of the past, and for a story to make sense, the story has to be within some kind of constructive order. The transitions between one event to another have to make sense so that the reader can use past context to make sense of what is happening in the current event and make logical predictions of what might come next. Like the chapters in a book, the sequence of events has to build up to one another and help construct the never-ending story.
With all that said, however, historical significance really depends on the historian, or the one who is recording history. Many historians of the past were not impartial and usually had some bias towards events which interfered with their personal thoughts and beliefs. This is why many Ancient Greek accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae tend to be glorified, with Ancient Greek historians claiming that five thousand Greeks held off over two million Persians, while modern estimates predict that the number was significantly lower at about one hundred fifty thousand. The historian, or the people recording the event, might change certain details of the event to make it match their views, or just choose to not write about it at all if they believe that it wasn’t significant, as they wouldn’t want future generations to know anything that makes the historians’ beliefs look foolish. Mostly, the definition of a significant event depends on the historian’s thoughts and feelings towards that event.