Every semester on the first day of class I ask my students, “does history matter?” I have them write down why they think it does or does not matter to them or society, as a whole, and then we discuss their answers. But I have a confession…
Does history even matter?
I have had a difficult time answering this question myself. I know why it matters to me. History fascinates me. It connects the dots between our present institutions and situations and how they came to be. History is disturbing, and brutal, and wonderful, and inspiring, and I can’t get enough of it. I love it, but translating that love to those who see no value in it or struggle to grasp its vastness is difficult. Especially when I couldn’t explain why history should matter to them.
We learn from our mistakes………….?
The standard answer I get from students every year is that history repeats itself and by knowing this we can stop making the same mistakes. We can learn from our past and make better decisions in the future. For a long time I reluctantly agreed. I knew this answer wasn’t complete, it wasn’t even satisfactory, but I didn’t have a better one. It is true in some cases when the person or institution reviewing past mistakes is introspective and interested in making a change, but what about the “big picture” stuff? Genocide. Political corruption. Poverty. Abuse. War. If we learn from our mistakes, why do these things continue to plague society?
It was good for me. Was it good for you?
Another problem with the idea that we can learn from our mistakes is that the concept of mistakes, or of good and bad decisions, is subjective. A mistake or terrible decision to one group might be viewed as a positive or even heroic action to another. Personal perceptions prevent us from coming together to identify a wrong and then correcting it. People care about how decisions affect themselves or the people closest to them and often cannot, or refuse to see how those actions affect other people. This is the gap history can fill.
Eyes wide open
One of the best things about teaching is being able to see the world through multiple and diverse perspectives. By asking my students the questions, that I had trouble answering myself, I realized the reason history matters. History matters because it allows us to see the world and each other through multiple lenses. History gives us the opportunity to understand one another in deeper ways and connects us to the “bigger picture.” History has evolved from only being written by or about a society’s “winners” to include the history of “ordinary” or marginalized people and institutions. Historians even look into the actual lives of societies “winners” and sometimes find some discomforting truths.
These, once missing parts of history, help tell the true story of us. Unfiltered history allows us face harsh realities, reconcile their place in history, and move forward. Humans are complex and flawed and so is our history. If we don’t take the time to understand each other and where we come from, we will not find those connections, we will continue to grow further apart, and terrible things will continue to happen. I do not think true compassion or empathy can be taught, not pity, not tolerance, but genuine concern for one another. Honest inquiry into history exposes us to the diverse experiences of the human condition and gives us the opportunity to truly connect and start seeing each other from a place of sincere understanding. The rest is up to you.