No, history doesn’t repeat itself

No, history doesn’t repeat itself

Battle of Gettysburg, Thure de Thulstrup - Source: Library of Congress
Battle of Gettysburg, Thure de Thulstrup – Source: Library of Congress

I’m as guilty as the next person of having blithely stated something no history teacher should ever accept, let alone utter. History does not repeat itself. Period. So what’s the purpose, the value of studying history if not to avoid making the same mistakes in the future? The answer has to do with avoiding bad questions, such as the one just posed.

Understanding the true value of history

The name of history teacher and author Bruce Lesh belatedly came to my attention in an article from The Atlantic. The article, High School History Doesn’t Have to be Boring has become a favorite of mine. The author, David Cutler, not only makes a case for why we history teachers should abandon the shamefully embarrassing – and almost universally tolerated – practice of straight, chronological presentation of dates, names and event to be memorized and forgotten after the test, but cite’s Lesh in clarifying why we teach history in the first place.

In a reference from Lesh’s book, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12, the job of the history teacher is teach student to analyze historical evidence and then construct arguments logically supported by the evidence.

Borrowing from Lesh’s example of students some day making a presentation at work as to why a building should be located at a particular site, it’s silly to accept that some day a new technology will be developed based upon the knowledge of when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. However, teaching history is about analyzing the many unequal causes of a past event and forming conclusions about that event.

Avoiding false comparisons

Are there patterns in history? Sure, but the use of patterns without the context of what conditions led to such major events as the American Civil War is not sufficient for forming predictions, a goal of understanding several disciplines including science and social studies.

Likewise, there’s never going to be another American Civil War, at least not comparable to that fought from 1861 to 1865. There may be future political upheaval caused by demographic shifts, economic disparities and the rise of unchecked extremism within a political identity, but without any comparable institution such as slavery – and no such contemporary issue exists – the history of the American Civil War won’t repeat itself. The same can be said about The Great Depression, Nazi Germany or the Attack on the World Trade Center.

It would be wrong to jump to the conclusion this is to say there won’t be another cataclysmic economic crisis, a nationalistic dictatorship by a major power or even a successful large scale attack by terrorists. Regrettably, all three happenings are not beyond the realm of possibility. However, any of these will have its own set of causes and combinations of political alliances unique to that event.

We don’t study history to avoid making past mistakes, per se; we study to avoid making new mistakes.

Slowing for the bumps

While correctly identifying the critical causes of the Civil War is an important goal of teaching American history well, spotting flawed arguments is no less an aim in critical thinking. Evaluating source quality, bias and error are the necessary speed bumps on the road to discovery.

Revisiting a previous post, teachers need to pre-teach, teach and re-teach the foundational skills of research before assigning tasks beyond the present skill of a student. Imagine a world in which deceptive political ads weren’t profitable and you’ve imagined an outcome of using the teaching of history to produce a society of informed consumers of information. Though we’re a long way from that ideal world, there’s no good reason we shouldn’t try. But first, we need for there to be a better understanding of history’s value. A good starting point is to reject the myth that history repeats itself.


3 responses to “No, history doesn’t repeat itself”

  1. debra hindlemann webster Avatar
    debra hindlemann webster

    david mark, it’s a good thing we’re not on the same planet. there would be strife… :0)

    of course, history repeats itself. are there changes? are new things happening? of course! are there shifts, and re-focusing, of course! the phrase wasn’t meant as a carbon-copy repetition (albeit that occurs, too); but rather to take a lesson from the concepts: figure it out. learn from one’s mistakes. this is what happened the last time we tried it…

    if the oven was hot in mrs. smith’s house, it’s probably hot in your house. that’s how people learn: they repeat the experiences of the past.

    it is indeed true that all past is prologue. unless one lives in a world of non-connected pixels, where everything is chaos. (people who have a rare type of amnesia, live like this, and every single day is new as though the past never happened. they have no connections to anything.)

    what you take for granted every single moment, is about history repeating itself. every breath you take is about your body recalling the history of the last breath, and knowing it has to do this again and again to survive.

    as for actual lessons from events in the past: of course, previous causes and effects create similar causes and effects in the future. isaac newton: what goes up, must come down. history repeats itself. poverty creates grounds for war. the middle class leads the revolution: it has the money and knowledge to go forward. money makes the world go round.

    history is not necessarily about flashbacks and exact repetition. it is about generalizations and common sense–axioms. it doesn’t mean that the universe is closed, and that nothing is new; it means that there are threads in all things that one can count on if one does one’s homework and figures out the common denominators. that’s why people write instruction manuals; they’ve done it before, and know how things work. history books are not only commentaries, but instruction manuals: this is what happened. repeat the process and it will happen again.

    each time you come up with a thought, i have so far disagreed with it. now, isn’t that proof enough that history repeats itself??? :0)

  2. ron hansing Avatar
    ron hansing

    The statement sounds like something Bucky Fuller would say.. Yes, that statement is true… and the challenge I just read, flashed in my mind. It’s true..( My puzzled bewilderment)…We have this fancy to live by seemingly true statements, yet never recognizing that it is false. Yes, it is the ole apples and oranges argument.

    The statement assumes that progress does not change and is static; hence, historical events are reproducible. Intuitively we recognized this yet still repeated the oft quoted statement as Gospel, immutable… But it is not the Gospel and is mutable, because today is not the past. Each day, changes the landscape, often imperceptibly small, however, change is change and the past cannot be repeated.

    Sounds, something like an Einstein theory of relativity… Everything is relative to the changing times. I made a wrong turn coming to work today… that small change upended the applecart of change. It will never be like it was the moment before.
    So analysis of history is much more difficult. This raises the question. If so, study history? Dr. Thomas eloquently answers that question. Thanks for stimulating my mind today.

    Ron hansing 5.13.14

  3. Steve Martin Avatar
    Steve Martin

    I very much enjoyed this thought-provoking piece, Mark. Thank you!