We’ve all heard it, some more often than others: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” This saying has gained the reputation as history teachers’ official motto when speaking to students who care more about what time the bell rings than what people did hundreds of years ago. However, behind the initial warning are three more truths that we can glean from in-depth historical study.
First, those who study history do not necessarily learn from it. Behind every disaster in history was a selfish decision, a corrupt motivation, or a foolhardy choice. The sinking of the Titanic, the Boston Massacre, the Spanish Armada, World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution-to name a few-now appear as warnings in our history books. So many lives were changed forever because of the actions of those who understood history but did not change their approach for future decisions. Studying history requires much more than memorization; it requires knowledge of cause and effect that touches us on a personal level.
Second, studying the people who created history appeals much more to our humanity than an overview of events does. History did not make the mistakes. People did. Study the pioneers, the congressmen, the revolutionaries. Were they acting on their own? Were they swept up in the emotions of the mob? Were they reacting to the injustices of their government? There is both wisdom and caution to be found in peoples’ stories. The more familiar we become with those who went before us, the more we can better understand ourselves and why we do the things we do.
Third, once history is learned, the individual has the choice to make different decisions not only for themselves but also for future generations. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines history as past events that relate to a particular subject, place, or organization. Likewise, history in a personal sense can be defined as humanity’s cycle of influence throughout generations. Even temporary influences affected someone throughout the course of history, and that someone surely used those past ideologies to shape his own generation, continuing the cycle of influence. The past never truly dies, as it goes on through the living.
So, instead of a deliberate eye roll when this statement is hurled our way, what can be our response? Quite simply, it may be to simply repeat history’s triumphs-not its failures. The choice is ours, and ours alone.
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