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History on Repeat

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History teacher

I’d like to believe that everything I say has great meaning, especially when it comes to my children and my students. My words of wisdom may guide them; it may help them find their footing.  However, most times, what I see as my greatest advice (“don’t touch the hot stove,” “actually study for your test,” “don’t just continually refresh your Twitter feed”) are words not heeded. Children must try running really fast in rain boots to learn that enormous cracks in the sidewalk will actually trip them and students have to learn from their own mistakes. We all must learn from our own mistakes. Somehow, it seems that the mistakes of others do little to alter our own actions.

Is history the same? Do nation states, with trails of loss, sorrow, and a collective conscious after a devastating war, use that memory to guide their actions in the future? Or is it as George Bernard Shaw said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”  Imagine the world today if Hitler had carefully studied Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that took place 129 years (almost to the day) previously.  Did world leaders, acutely aware of the cost of acting as bystanders, actually choose not to act during the devastating genocides in Rwanda? At times, the course of history has been mapped out by those unable or uninterested in looking back and deeply studying the actions of the past, yet look at the founding fathers of the United States. They were so profoundly affected by the world they were escaping that they carved out a new future for themselves and many generations to come.

Why does history matter? Why do we ask students from the age of nine or ten to sit through classes year after year, closely examining civilizations past and present? What are we supposed to take away from our studies of the past?

History provides us with a context and helps us understand that the events around us do not happen in a vacuum.  A deep knowledge of history and the critical thinking skills it teaches enable us - members of local, national, and global communities - to make important decisions, actively participate in the world around us, and understand the events that define our times. History comes in many forms: world history, American history, family history and so on.  The actions, the thoughts, the decisions of those who came before us have shaped our lives in profound ways, just as your actions, thoughts and decisions will shape the lives of those to come.  While we may never learn to look to the past for guidance on how to move forward, the study of history can provide us with the skills necessary to think critically, act wisely and change the world for the better, however that may be.