In the previous post in this series Let’s Talk ‘Why Do We Still Have Gender Issues?’ I asked why, in the year 2017, do we still have unresolved gender issues. Why do women feel the need to band together to acquire that which is their due? Today, thanks to a post by JoAnn Chateau entitled ‘Ancient Greeks: Pythagoras on Repeating Patterns’, I am inspired to ponder the question of whether or not we learn from history.
Over the course of my three and a half decades in a high school history classroom, my greatest opponent was not ignorance or laziness among my classes, it was a pervasive attitude. That attitude held that history is irrelevant. Not many were interested in learning about boring stuff that happened hundreds of years ago. Boring? Really? You bet!
As I explored these sentiments with my students each semester, it turns out that for many of them, learning history was just memorizing events and dates for tests, and slapping together the odd project about how pioneers made butter. These kids had no idea about the true nature of history, and so, they placed no value on the study. I told them I agreed because studying a list of events and dates was tantamount to memorizing my weekly grocery list. Their mouths dropped open as they gaped at me as if I was a three-headed alien.
Once I had established we were all on the same page with their concept about historical studies, I invited them to participate in an adventure to discover the true nature of history. They were mighty skeptical, with lots of eye-rolling, but they were willing to give it a chance – after all, I didn’t attack their preconceptions and treat them like a bunch of schmucks. I then promised them that I would not make them memorize lists of dates, but they had to learn one date. That was the date Canada became an independent country. I asked who already knew the date. More eye-rolling – lots of hands went up. Gee sir, everybody knows that was 1867! Nope! Gasp! Heresy! They got their first lesson on historical misconceptions. (The correct answer is 1931.) I promised I’d test that date on every test and exam throughout the semester. An easy mark, eh!
My mission was to teach my students that history is the interpretation of what we think happened in the past. Hmm. Then they discovered what interpretations were and that historians differed in their opinions about the past. So what’s true, sir? You mean anybody’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s? Nope. A new lesson about informed opinions. Gradually, these kids came to understand that history is as subjective as any of the other arts and humanities. Yet, there were lessons to be learned.
Most people didn’t get that kind of instruction as students – neither did I. It was the romantic inside me that made me fall in love with history. Disciplined study taught me to understand it. That understanding made current events make a lot more sense. Terrorism didn’t invent itself out of thin air. The election of Donald Trump wasn’t surprising in the context of history – lots of American voters felt disenfranchised and angry – similar to the situation in Germany when Hitler was elected on the promise to establish the Third Reich (Make America Great Again). Feed that anger with demagoguery and you have the unthinkable occur. The human adventures of the past created our circumstances today.
You have voters who are fairly ignorant of history, are angry and looking to lop off heads, and do not consider what is best for the Common Good. Sometimes, solutions that are best for the nation are not particularly good for me. As well, decisions based on emotional responses (we won’t let North Korea get away with harming innocent tourists) will often lead us down the slippery slope to war. Nationalism can be a positive force in a nation, but it has its dark side too.
Yes! History does repeat itself. That’s not surprising because human nature is the one constant down through the ages that never changed. The same needs and urges drive behavior today that drove humanity in the past. Memorizing events and dates won’t change this – but understanding why things happened in the past and what the consequences were, will help us to see the parallels to our own circumstances. In a democracy, the voters decide who sits in The West Wing or the Prime Minister’s Office. They tell the elected politicians what they think is right. They demand to be heard and acknowledged. As my mother always said, voters get the government they deserve. When we don’t study and understand the past, we will make the same mistakes as our ancestors. I believe this is the case today and has always been. For a species that prides itself on its rationality and great technological advancements, it is remarkably sad.