History need not repeat itself

Why study history? So that we may learn from it – understand the human condition and improve it.

My students’ history books are databases of facts. Facts do not have the same impact on an impressionable mind as a story of individuals whose lives were shattered due to horrific events and people. WW II took away approximately 80 million lives. Multiply that with members of each family that suffered from trauma. This number does not faze the student. It’s only a number. She cannot fathom it. But we know how traumatic it is to lose even one loved one. The pain is not only unbearable, but it also it never leaves. And yet the student does not feel the pain of 80 million lives lost.

How can they learn from history? By presenting history from the point of view of individuals, not as a database. How will these stories impact the lives of future generations? We learn when things touch us emotionally. I watched the Civil War documentary by Ken Burns. It was moving beyond words can describe. After one of my students watched it, she said she has a renewed and heightened sensitivity to those that were affected (and continue to suffer injustices even today) and those among the privileged that fought for them. Have your students read novels like the Book Thief. Have them read articles like the one in Smithsonian[1]. These types of readings help the reader understand events from close up, from the point of view of a family or town that was affected by war and other calamities. Now, I know you’re probably saying, “I already have my students watch movies and documentaries.” Unfortunately, the students still have to memorize numbers, dates and names in the fashion of an encyclopedia. Instead, have them annotate books, ask them to connect those events with other similar events in history or those in current times. Iron Jawed Angels about women’s fight for suffrage.

Of course, thankfully, history is not all misery. Great strides have been made toward improving human conditions. We want to make sure our children understand the hardships and innovativeness that were undertaken to make our lives happier and more comfortable.

If history does not have an impact on our children, how will they make sure they don’t repeat the mistakes? How will they understand why they need to bring about change and what it takes to achieve that?


[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/revisiting-vietnam-50-years-after-tet-offensive-180967501/