The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be: Reflections on The Significance of Teaching and Learning History

I believe strongly that one of the most significant things that can be gained through the study of history is a more profound understanding of the experiences of another human being.  We can never completely understand what a person has felt or known, but it is possible to see a vague reflection of their condition.  The full scope of human understanding is probably far beyond what a single person can ever completely grasp, but in the search for the meaning of individual moments in time, it is possible to see deeper into what it means to be that particular human in that particular moment.  That understanding can grant us the grace that comes with feeling a genuine connection to those who we may not physically ever meet.  This connection allows us to know more of what it means to be human.  For me, this is the most important reason to teach and learn history.

Often, the study of history is presented as a magical panacea for all that ails the human race.  I don’t believe history can “fix” anything.  The most well-worn and wildly inaccurate cliché about history is that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Students are often programed like robots to repeat that as a way of explaining why it is worth spending hour upon hour of their time on earth pondering the actions of William the Conqueror or Marie Antoinette.  Granted, explaining the deeper meaning of history is a labyrinthine task, but simply leaving students with the veiled threat about how not paying attention to a lesson may leave them to the brink of extinction is hardly an effective means of fostering a long-term commitment to learning.   Nobody knows what patterns will unfold as time passes.  Studying what has happened is not a recipe for understanding what will happen.

One of the few recognizable truths that the subject seems to offer is that it is impossible for history to ever repeat itself.  Sets of circumstances are always unique.  Sure, there are similarities between the French and Russian Revolutions, but to argue that history was merely re-running an episode of “The Revolution Hour Hosted by Vladimir Lenin” is a grotesque oversimplification.  My experience has been that historical themes that “repeat” themselves only look that way if one is paying little attention to the actual circumstances of the event.  There are nearly infinite numbers of minor unrecorded actions and forgotten decisions that made the event what it was.  We know so little and presume so much.

By understanding the past, we gain little insight into our future.  Even if I magically found a way to absorb every moment of the past, I strongly doubt that I could even know what the weather was going to be like a week from Sunday.  The future is created by the sum total of the actions of human beings in each particular moment.  I have not been given the machinery to synthesize a trillionth of the events of a given millisecond.  If they all count for varying degrees of something, then how on earth could I possibly expect to understand the moment I’m in, let alone the ones that will come next?

The problem with a historical outlook that is built on gaining future “results” is that it obscures a much more powerful purpose for historical study, which is to genuinely understand something that goes beyond ones own wishes, desires and beliefs.  Historians often try to bend events into coherent themes in the hopes of explaining large blocks of time.  This form of historical shorthand is necessary on many levels, but when it comes to supersede the experiences and events that have taken place, then it becomes a major barrier to the path of empathy that true engagement with the subject can create.

If the goal of learning history is trying to predict the outcomes of a series of events, then it is certainly not an effective tool.  However, history may well be one of the greatest engines ever created to teach empathy and compassion.  The problem with teaching students to believe that history follows certain patterns is it robs them of the understanding of what a remarkable role uncertainty plays in history.  Students often ask why a certain historical actor was so dumb as not to see how obvious their fate was to anyone who paid attention.  After all, we know how all the stories end.  The problem is, historical actors do not know how their lives will end up.  They are making decisions in the moment without the benefit of hindsight.   No historical pattern can guarantee a person’s well-being.  They were fishing around in the dark just like we are.  They didn’t know how they would die, they didn’t know what their actions would mean and they certainly didn’t have the benefit being able to walk away from their stories when events became too challenging.  We don’t either.  This basic human truth should be the bedrock of any exploration of history.

To attempt to fully comprehend meaning of even one moment of a human life is an awe-inspiring goal.  Even with the comparatively small amount of information we have about the lives of our fellow travelers, when we can see a flicker of their humanity we have granted ourselves the wonderful kinship that comes with knowing that we are not making our journey alone.  Humans can survive perfectly well without studying history.  The past, however, can teach us so much more than simply how to survive.  It offers us an amazing window of insight into the miraculous complexities of what it means to be alive.  This understanding is history’s truest gift to us.  This is why it is worthwhile to learn about the past.

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  1. #1 by dragonfae on November 17, 2011 - 10:57 PM

    […]The most well-worn and wildly inaccurate cliché about history is that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
    However, history may well be one of the greatest engines ever created to teach empathy and compassion.[…]

    I agree with you completely … but I think that Santayana’s words are not only frequently misquoted (see a portion of the applicable paragraph from Reason in Common Sense below) they are taken out of context. I think he would agree that empathy and compassion, combined with a societal life experience, is necessary to mature and progress as a people.

    And that’s really what (I think) he’s talking about in the paragraph that quote is taken from … at least before it was mangled. 😉

    For posterity’s sake, here is the first third (or so) of that paragraph:
    Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.

    • #2 by Keith Spillett on November 18, 2011 - 7:41 PM

      Thanks for sending me the whole quote. I’ve never read it in context. Amazing how different it appears in the full paragraph! It makes the other things I’ve read by Santayana make a good deal more sense to me. His outlook always seemed much more nuanced than that quote and, sure enough, it really is.

      • #3 by Mitch Hinkle on November 20, 2011 - 8:45 PM

        Its Mitch Hinkle. I’m in Los Angeles at treatment give my regards to Sylvia, Ziggy and the gang. hope to see you soon.
        And apparently the people of Los Angeles are scared of rain.

      • #4 by dragonfae on November 21, 2011 - 12:49 PM

        Having lived in LA most of my life, I can attest to the fact that most drivers here are complete idiots in the rain.

        Some are afraid of it (OMG, rain! I have to go really slooow) and a larger number have no clue (Phht. It’s just a little water, why should I slow down?) and continue to drive way above the speed limit. Both types are dangerous, especially when out together. Sorry … this is one of my pet peeves with the twits in LA.

        I love rain but hate driving in it out here.

        Mitch, I hope your treatment is going well.

  2. #5 by Chris S. on November 18, 2011 - 5:14 AM

    For what it’s worth, I always assumed that the line “Those who don’t learn the lessons of History are doomed to repeat it…” was always missing the last part: “in Summer school.”

  3. #7 by afrankangle on November 18, 2011 - 7:59 AM

    The critics rave … Thoughtful! Insightful! Provocative! It will cause the tumblers in your mind to roll.

    Your perspective is refreshing. Yet, here are dangers and assurances in finding commonalities with the past. Simply a great post and one that all students of history should read and ponder.

    • #8 by Keith Spillett on November 18, 2011 - 7:48 PM

      Thanks sir! I do appreciate your appreciation!

  4. #9 by John Erickson on November 18, 2011 - 5:29 PM

    History cannot be used as a template. It’s not a computer program, where if you put in the same variables, you get out the same answer.
    Rather, history is a road map. History shows where we’ve been, and points out both good and bad decisions. Is Iraq another Vietnam? Not directly – the politics, weapons, terrain, and combatants are very different. But many of the same mistakes made leading up to 1965 have INDEED been made, and have served to draw us into a situation SIMILAR (but not equal to) Vietnam. Just as Santyana was trying to say – if you don’t remember the mistakes of your past, you will make similar mistakes again. Not the SAME mistakes, but similar.
    And I apologise for all the caps, but I have yet to figure out how to italicise. Yeah, the ex-programmer, can’t italicise his posts. (NO COMMENTS, FRANK! :p ) 😀

    • #10 by dragonfae on November 19, 2011 - 12:49 AM

      Pssst … John, to do italics, use the tags and (removing the spaces) with the text you want italicized in between. And if you use “strong” instead of “em”, you get bold text. 😉

      • #11 by dragonfae on November 19, 2011 - 12:52 AM

        And of course silly WordPress used it as code. Argh!!!! Just use either “em” or “strong” with the “less than” and “greater than” symbols on either side to open, add your text, then do the same with the “forward slash” before the “em” or “strong”.

        Clear as mud?

        Keith, sorry to temporarily highjack the comments. 🙄

      • #12 by Keith Spillett on November 19, 2011 - 2:06 PM

        You have official permission to use this comment section for whatever purposes you need, be they nefarious or altruistic.

      • #13 by John Erickson on November 19, 2011 - 5:10 PM

        Clear as finest crystal, dear lady. I programmed in COBOL, which can generate some really interesting formatting codes.

      • #14 by Keith Spillett on November 19, 2011 - 2:05 PM

        Good stuff to know. I still can’t even make those cool looking faces!

      • #15 by dragonfae on November 19, 2011 - 10:06 PM

        Thank you Keith, that’s very nice of you. 🙂

        John, I hear ya … I did very little COBOL programming. Mostly FORTRAN and C+ here. 😉

  5. #16 by Keith Spillett on November 18, 2011 - 7:55 PM

    I don’t even think we make similar mistakes. We make wildly different ones each time. Often, our mistakes are built on the belief that we can correct the mistakes we’ve made by not making the same one. If it’s a roadmap, it has the uncanny ability only tell us where we’ve been. I don’t think there is a map for the future. Yesterday’s mistakes may well turn into tomorrow’s great ideas. I will agree that there are a few general ideas we can get from the past, but I worry that they are often simply not applicable to the future. Personally, I’d prefer it if folks stuck to the lessons of the present. I think we’d be better off.

    You didn’t have all that many CAPS on this one!

  6. #17 by Jim Wheeler on November 20, 2011 - 4:30 PM


    During my el-hi education, history was dull stuff consisting mainly of memorizing names and dates. As you say, it can be so very much more.

    Being reminded by fellow blogger Indiana Jen, I recently posted on an historical article about a blockade-running ship of Civil War vintage, that subject being one that meshed with my personal experiences and important to my ability to visualize and empathize with the humanity of the time. It is that human context that is all too often missing from most history curricula, as you say. It was a thrilling saga worthy of good literature.


    (The link to the excellent Archeological article is near the end of the post.)

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