Lessons You Should Have Learned From History

I have been reflecting recently on what I teach and why I teach and what frustrating ideas I encounter about history among adults. So here is my list of lessons they should have learned from history, and which I hope I am helping my students discover for themselves.

  1. Old is not a reason – Saying that something is old, or traditional, or has always been done this way is not a reason to keep up the practice. This does not mean that historical thinking naturally is liberal or anti-conservative. In that regard, I think of the line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” Much of the past has merit and some would bear reclaiming. But age itself is not a reason to hold onto (or reject) an idea or practice.
  2. The past is not over – Our present is directly a product of our past. On one level, that may seem obvious. But I still regularly encounter students who describe themselves as “surprised” that racism “still existed” in the 1950s. They know little about the way in which federal, state, and local laws embraced, perpetuated, and expanded racial segregation at least well into the 20th century. But as we continue they can see how decisions and ideas that might seem long ago structure the world they live in each day. (This is one of the lessons students commonly mention at the end of my courses.)
  3. Everything changes – This seems obvious as a centerpiece of historical study. So it is especially frustrating when I encounter people who purport to love history but who have not internalized this lesson. By “everything” I mean to include not only particular economic arrangements or what political party is in power or which new laws are passed. I mean fundamental things like the invention and shifting meaning of race. Hitler was not only wrong about the Jews; he was wrong about the fundamental idea that race is a fixed, permanent category. Race is a made-up category (the result of racism) and is thus susceptible to change as much as any other human idea or institution.
  4. Seeking to understand is not the same as agreeing – My students and I spend a great deal of time reading the words and history of people with different ideas than ours, trying to understand where those ideas came from and how they made sense in their world at the time. Taking their thoughts seriously does not require taking them as our own, but it does require moving beyond simple condemnation or praise to deeper analysis.
  5. Other people live lives that are dramatically different than ours – Related to number 3, I think history is a wonderful subject for building empathy. Especially as Americans find ever-new ways to self-segregate, facing the complex array of past experience opens us up to considering ways in which our individual present experiences may differ. This is also part of what separates real historical work (even at the amateur level) from the work of “history buffs”: the former is about understanding the people of the past on their own terms while the latter often presents them as basically just older versions of ourselves.
  6. History cannot do anything by itself – The old notion of Providence as a benevolent, godlike force running through human history and giving shape to our actions (or, more commonly, the actions of others) is – in my experience – alive and well. Few people use that word now, but they still often speak as though ‘history’ had some agency itself, separate from the combined actions of individuals.
  7. History does not automatically lead toward any fixed outcome – A subset of lesson 5 is that there are no automatic outcomes for history. The idea that “the arc of history is long and bends toward justice,” though moving, is – as far as I can determine – a matter of faith rather than historical evidence. To the extent that any society (or the world as a whole) grows more just over time, that change comes as the product of individual action. To me, these ideas suggests both hope and weighty responsibility. If history has been determined by individual action in the past, then how will my actions shape it in the future?
  8. Many of us benefit from awful things done in the past, including by those regarded as heroes – As one example: Thomas Jefferson wrote (and the Continental Congress affirmed) that “all men are created equal” and entitled to basic rights. Jefferson also owned and continued to own slaves – and to defend that right – throughout his life. One of those facts should be encouraging to us (gender shortcomings aside) and one reprehensible. But for Jefferson, the two were inseparably connected. To really understand what we are as a nation, we must also understand how the continuing relationship between the two shaped the past and present.
  9. There is no such thing as a single objective source or perspective – Good historical work requires taking in as much information as possible from as many sources as possible to give as clear and full and honest of an assessment of the past as possible. But all of those sources bring with them their own perspectives. So do the historians in their work of evaluating the sources and simply in raising the questions that lead to their studies in the first place. I do not know any historians who choose to spend years working on topics about which they have no opinion or interest one way or another. The same is certainly true of memoirists, journalists, and everyone else that writes about the past or produces documents that historians study later. In all cases, we, as individual students, must do our best to wade through these biases and make our own assessments. Those assessments are usually strongest when we are honest about the other possible interpretations and perspectives that exist.

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