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Past History is Key to the Present; Present is Key to the Future

What Do We Learn from History? - Nikater
The historical/heritage nostalgia industry is growing, yet history teaching is becoming a thing of the past. Should history be given new-found importance?


Politically, the need for people to know and learn from the past (their own and others’) is crucial. Whether it’s conflicts in the Middle East, India/Pakistan or Northern Ireland, without an understanding of local history, nobody progresses improvements.

Culturally, in religions/faiths, why/how/what people behave, wear, think is vital knowledge. Where grievances go back centuries, understanding causes of events is essential. It’s not easy to predict the future accurately, nor understand the present without a grasp of the past, nor see how movements flow in evolution, such as modernism to postmodernism.

Economically, cultural/historical tourism is part of a growth global industry. Even movie tourism has some element of historical enjoyment and re-enactment about it. So, is history teaching treated seriously enough on the curriculum, in the classroom?

History Repeats Itself

Big Brother’s mantra in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four (1948): “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future,” was chilling justification for authoritarianism, but a true statement of fact.

George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish-American philosopher, essayist, novelist and aphorist, famous for truths, like, “only the dead have seen the end of war.” Perhaps his best known was, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Variations are credited to many, from Chairman Mao to Lenin to Oscar Wilde (“We learn from history that we don’t learn from history”), but it’s also true.

Mistakes perpetuate, generation after generation, sometimes from collective inability to learn, like children learning the “hard way.” Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said, “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”

In sociology, history, events and stages of society repeating cyclically is The Social Cycle Theory, the opposite of social evolution theories, although even in cycles there can be social progress. More spirals, perhaps, than circles.

Why Study History?

Dr Steven Kreis, historian, philosopher, political scientist, teacher and author of The History Guide, answering Why Study History? in 2000 said at first glance, “What could history offer the business major, or web page development, psychology, pre-med, law student or shop-floor worker? Everything has history, even history itself has a history. We can’t escape the past. We celebrate the past all the time.”

He dismissed the argument that history study is to avoid past mistakes, as too simplistic. If it were so, then “war, poverty, injustice and immorality ought not to exist.” He also disagreed with the view that as everything repeats itself, the past holds the key to the future.

He said that history tells us about the now. “Everything has a history: ideas, wars, numbers, races, windsurfing, coal miners, pencils, motherhood and even toilet-training. All great writers and philosophers are best understood in terms of their historical contexts. Ideas have history. They undergo a process of development. They change, are modified, distributed or forgotten only to reappear years, decades or even centuries later.”

Peter N. Stearns of the American Historical Association rehearsed arguments in 1998 to justify history’s place in the educational curriculum, satisfying those who enjoy information, those who analyse people’s motives, and education funders: “Historians don’t perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals. In a society that quite correctly expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history can seem more difficult to define than those of engineering or medicine.”

For Stearn, “history is indispensable: to gain access to the laboratory of human experience.” It helps understanding peoples and society; how societies evolved; how change can be managed; the identity/value of personal, family and community history in social cohesion and citizenship, and a contribution to future moral understanding by reflecting on past morality.

English writer LP Hartley (1895-1972) said, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That helps to explain, but not excuse, slavery, for example. The foundations of current tensions between Christianity and Islam were laid 12 centuries ago. Only with historical knowledge can forgiveness and new racial harmony be tackled.

Stearns also claimed that history study improves student assessment skills, such as evidence gathering, conflicting interpretations and past examples of change, helping to make better businesspeople, law/education professionals and political leaders.

History Teaching in UK Schools

The UK Historical Association, “the voice for history.” undertook in 2010 a major survey into history teaching in English secondary schools. Written by Katharine Burn (Institute of Education) and Richard Harris (Southampton University), it was a thorough study, demanding a response. The main findings were: “teachers report serious concerns that history is disappearing in their schools with senior managers assuming that the study of the past has no value in its own right.”

Schools increasingly subsume history into generic “humanities,” particularly as children move into Key Stage 4, GCSE exam phase. This, partly driven by results obsession, forces schools into “easier” subjects, reflects management’s desire for tidy programmes of study, in which controversial thinking and knowledge give way to mere skills.

Frank Lutmer of Hanover College, Indiana, in 1996 argued that ‘”the study of history is vital to a liberal arts education.” History is “the discipline most concerned with understanding change.” He focussed on the endurance of tradition, understanding the complex interplay between continuity and change, and the origins, evolution, and decline of institutions and ideas.

His final point is equally telling: “because it’s fun!”

First published on Suite 101, 18 September 2011.

Photo: What Do We Learn from History? – Nikater

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