Does History Repeat Itself?

Why do we study history? History is an interpretive study. The human adventure of the past created the present. Voters get the government they deserve. History does repeat itself and that is sad.

An open book representing the recorded past.

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!

John Fioravanti teaching at the front of his classroom.
“Check out these causes!” (Image courtesy of Iceberg Publishing)

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.

Image of Winston Churchill flashing the peace sign and an image of Hitler giving the flat-handed salute - with the caption: Scissors Beats Paper
Only if you understand the history of World War II will this double image and caption have meaning.

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.

In the meantime… Let’s Talk!

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December, 2013, and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (, to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

73 thoughts on “Does History Repeat Itself?”

  1. Fortunately, I had a history teacher a bit like you. I don’t remember the dates about Marxism, but I do remember a metaphor he used about a little boy and a peanut-butter sandwich.
    I often ponder…is it because ‘we’ don’t want to admit we don’t learn from previous mistakes, out of shame? Or are ‘we’ really that selfish? Do ‘we’ lack sense of responsibility? Does something really bad has to happen to a person personally first, before waking up?
    Is knowledge power? When the knowledge one retrieves is false?
    Fantastic article, dear John.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words! You have asked some very pertinent questions here. As I read them, I’m reminded that we humans have to learn everything from scratch – ergo we go to school, etc. Why don’t we accept the lessons of the past? Poor teaching? Maybe, but I think that there are a couple of things in play. First, I think you’re on to something when you ask about our levels of greed. As well, we tend to learn better by personal experience than by the experience of others. Also, each generation seems to be plagued with a superiority complex that causes us to look at previous generations and just roll our eyes. Hence, humanity tends to repeat the mistakes of the past. Thanks for your insightful comment, Patty!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure. I love these kind of chats 😉
        Another thing I would like to add; I believe parents expect to much from teachers. As in…drop of their kids (or send them on their way by school-bus), go to work and expect teachers to raise their kids.
        In The Netherlands, a little while ago they highlighted the importance of bed-time stories. For quality-time, but also to increase the knowledge/use of words.
        The new government even intend to implement a law, which makes it mandatory that school visit a certain Dutch museum. I feel, parents should do this.

        Yes, I think you have a valid point; superiority complex. It’s really sad to think of the possibility, important history (lessons) might even disappear.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree that parents have an important role to play. It was my mother who forced me to read to her every day while she prepared supper. If I got stuck on a word, I had to haul out the dictionary. I learned, and soon she didn’t have to force me to read to her every day. Thanks, Patty!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. A great post John, and I should have very much liked to have been taught history by you! It was a very dry subject when I was in school. Mind, I am interested now because everything happens in context, I’d say: and that is, in part, history I’d say.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An eye-opening post, John. Your approach to teaching is intuitive. Unfortunately, intuition can’t be taught, but how to teach intuitively can. I’d love to see you write that book! Regarding the state of affairs here in the U.S., I’m not surrendering to fear. The patriarchy that has ruled humankind for thousands of years is now dying. As with anything facing its own demise, it is rearing its head for one last stand. And if we learned anything from Custer, it would be that it will not succeed. The prophecies of most indigenous cultures speak of The Golden Age of Enlightenment that we are now entering. But we won’t recognize this until the dredges of patriarchy surface and are washed away. Prior to the establishment of patriarchy, matriarchy reigned. So now we’ve experienced both, the result of living on a bipolar planet. We’ll evolve into this new age as more and more people become aware, which is being evidenced across the globe. The correlation between Trump and Hitler is unnerving, to say the least. And things might very well get worse before they get better. We are in the storm before the calm. And I trust the calm will see a union of all peoples on Earth. Perhaps we are finally learning from history … 💚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful insights, Tina. I pray you are right about the end days for the ruling patriarchy and not just more of the same overwhelming all obstacles. The factor that gives me hope is the Internet. Never in our history have ordinary people around the globe been able to communicate with each other in near real time. Social media has proven to have a significant impact on political affairs and social issues. My hope is that as the rich 1% who rule this planet will be overwhelmed by the opposition of the many, mobilized by ideas shared on the Internet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In the sense that pervasive gerrymandering skews the vote. There’s also the fact that, as we’ve seen a few times, a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote by a fair margin and still win the White House. I would not argue myself that the US is not a democracy, but I would say it’s not nearly as democratic in its politics as some countries are. Though perhaps that can’t be helped in a country of over 300 million.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve thought about the US system a lot as compared to our Canadian parliamentary system. Neither one is perfect, but I think the big flaw in the American system is their rigid two-party system. I agree with you about the antiquated and outdated Electoral College – the president should be determined by popular vote. The Electoral College was devised during a time when not all men, and no women, had the vote. The poorly-educated masses were not to be trusted to make sound election decisions. Having said all that, the real problem with all democracies today is that power has become concentrated in the hands of a small number of wealthy people who exert a controlling influence over the elected politicians.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I adore history, always have. I’m reading Nellie McClung’s autobiography. She wrote it in 2 parts, 10 years apart from each other. Although the approach differs in both books, the history is compelling. It’s not just herstory, it’s seeing time go by through her eyes and emotions. I thought I knew a lot about Canada’s history from 1873 – 1945. I now know more, better!


    1. Thanks for stopping, by, Resa. Yes, Nellie McClung was strong, highly intelligent, and a resolute person. I haven’t read her autobiographies, but I’m sure they are well done. I’m still learning as I go along. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really fascinating read. I manage a large archive and, in all the stories it tells the same constant remains. Humans have not evolved that much over the centuries. Until we stop loving, hating, and wanting then our history will always be the same. Different people in different places with the same motivations. If we were to stop experiencing those emotions, would be still be human?


    1. Thanks for your kind words. You’re right, history repeats itself because human nature has not changed since humanity first emerged. Another factor is the fact that every individual must learn the lessons of the past – there is no innate collective memory. However, I do see progress on many humanitarian fronts down through the ages. Thanks for your insights!


  6. John, you definitely would have been my favourite teacher! Yup, quite certain of it. I love your teaching and learning philosophy. Engagement at its finest. Thanks for sharing this with us, as always. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. John, you really took a different approach to your classroom than the history teachers I had who simply ignored the comments by students that the topics were “boring” and that history was was all about memorization. It’s great that you encouraged them to think of it differently, as being a subjective interpretation. Thumbs up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Christy. One of the important things I tried to pass along to my students was the art of writing a well-researched and well-documented formal essay. In order for a student to pull that off successfully, they had to understand the nature of the beast. For example, one question I always got was about consulting multiple sources. Why, sir? The facts don’t change, sir. Gradually, they came to understand that I didn’t want a grade 5 social studies project with lots of great facts. No, I wanted them to tell me about the interpretations of the authors they had researched. Ohhhh… and the lights started coming on. My high school teachers didn’t teach this stuff and I couldn’t figure out why my first-year history prof gave me a lousy mark on my first university essay. So I taught myself with the help of some books from the university book store. I vowed that I would teach my students so that they would get to university better prepared. Thanks for your comment, dear!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    Highly recommended reading! Here’s an excerpt:

    “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.”


  9. A lovely post on the interpretive nature of history, John. History and English were my two favourite subjects at school and I took History to the end of high school. The history my son is studying is fantastic, so interactive and involves so much interpretation of events and what led to them. It gives me hope for the future as, what you say is true, we can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t understand how they came about in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. If only…I had been taught history as you describe – interpretatively. Unfortunately, I was a student who memorized facts and dates and then promptly forgot both after the test. I began questioning and searching as a young mother – trying to understand sets of events and people’s responses. Life is not as I had imagined, and while the craziness sometimes evokes despair in me, I rather quickly recover and experience wonder – a gift of advanced age. 🙂 As always, thank you for your insights, John.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having read your book, Letting Go Into Perfect Love (, Gwen, I get what you’re saying. It is easy to become frustrated and to lose hope in the face of the insanity in the world today, but I am reminded of the somewhat vulgar expression, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” If people of pure heart stand by and do nothing, evil and insanity will prevail. All we can do is use the gifts we have to do as much good as we can – then have faith that it will make a difference. Thanks for your kind words and your loving wisdom, good friend!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. In this age of Internet blogging, everyone who wishes can build their own soapbox and air their opinions – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. Everyone has the right to their opinion – and to express it, but not all opinions are equal. I do very little preaching in my blogs because I am only too aware that my expertise on any given subject is limited. I know that I need to continue searching and learning each day. In my blogs, I’d rather stimulate some discussion than telling people what they should be thinking/doing. Thanks for inspiring this blog, JoAnn and for sharing your thoughts here today!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Well, you are a teaching expert, and this is a great post about your field. Regarding your attractive modesty…

        According to a recent study, there is evidence that incompetent people tend to overestimate their own attributes and skills, and that they are least able to identify their own mistakes. (I suspect Trump is inspiring a flood of social research – whether he funds it or not!)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thanks for your very kind words, JoAnne. So happy to know I don’t compare well to our current POTUS… good grief, perish the thought! I think the recent study you referred to is spot on and that reminds me of my pet peeve with some author bloggers – but that’s for another time.

          Liked by 2 people

    1. I hope I’m wrong too – but the scene in Washington gets more bizarre by the day. Unfortunately, for the rest of us in the free world that have absolutely no say in the choice of Potus, we are mightily impacted. Thanks for your comment today, John.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I know. My students would often ask me why the US appointed itself The World’s Policeman. I told them that after getting dragged into two world wars started by competing European imperial powers, the Americans decided there wouldn’t be a third. Also, let’s be grateful that there hasn’t been a third world war – the nuclear deterrent has been effective. Now, with POTUS making isolationist noises, people around the globe are getting nervous. I’m praying hard that many US voters will remove Republican control from one if not both houses of Congress in the next round of elections. That race in Florida is shaping up as a possible harbinger of things to come.

          Liked by 1 person

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