George Barnard Shaw once wrote: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience!” And yet, isn’t it ironic that so often, events happen in the collective history of humanity which, in retrospect should have seemed obvious based on the lessons of history. Even the casual observer of history cannot help but wonder if all of us ought to be likened to a teenager who, in defiance of all precedent and even occasionally common sense, believes that “this time it will be different.” Why do we continually fail to learn from the experiences of history?
In 1820, the newly minted United States of America were deeply divided by the issue of slavery. In particular, the nation’s politicians were bitterly divided on whether Missouri, the newest state to apply to the Union (if such a term could be applied to relationship between the fracturing nation), should allow slavery. The ensuing Missouri Compromise prompted Thomas Jefferson to write to several of his correspondences that “as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Gone were the days of “Join or Die” pronunciations declaring the shared commitment to freedom from the American Revolution that recognized that the strength of the states was in their collective commitment to one another. Unlike many people who were undoubtedly taken by surprise by the conflict, Jefferson had always recognized the danger that slavery posed.
Jefferson had seen fit to attempt to confront the moral problem of slavery in a free society almost fifty years earlier when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had seen fit to confront head-on the contradiction between the unalienable rights given by God referenced in the opening lines of the Declaration and the institution of slavery. In the list of grievances section of the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson observed that King George was an unjust ruler because “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Jefferson recognized in 1776 the danger that the institution of slavery posed to the nation. Yet when the Declaration was adopted, the delegates from several Southern colonies insisted on the removal of the slavery clause. It was the only major edit made to Jefferson’s draft of this historic document. Jefferson recognized the moral dilemma caused by this historic inconsistency, and prophetically observed in 1820 that the nation could neither reconcile the institution of slavery with its own values, and yet pragmatically could also not let go of that inconsistency. Jefferson wasn’t surprised by the struggle; he knew from experience how bitterly divisive of an issue this would be. Jefferson’s comments in his correspondence even seem to foreshadow the coming civil war.
Despite the lessons history has to teach, it is perceived to be less and less relevant by each successive generation. Hans Hillerbrand compared our societies attitude toward history as being similar to that toward the Gideon Bibles stuffed into hotel room drawers, “revered, yet seldom used.” Elizabeth Belanger observed that not only do many students struggle with understanding the importance of studying history, but even society places overt priorities on other areas of academics at the elementary and secondary levels. All one must do is look at the instructional time devoted to Math and Language Arts in the elementary level, or do a fast comparison of the number of History courses as compared with the variety of Science and Technology offerings at a local high school to see that students are not the only ones who seldom use history.
Yet perhaps, Jefferson’s story has relevance for us today, for although an astute scholar of political philosophy and history, Jefferson himself seems to have lacked the ability to grasp history’s personal call. Despite his recognition of the logical inconsistency between the natural rights accounted to all men and slavery, Jefferson continued to own slaves for his entire life. While he could see the necessity of learning from the mistakes of history, he failed to apply it personally. This is what we must do when we study history. In methodology, history is the discipline of studying the past, in practicality, history is what we study to make decisions for the future.
As historians, we must instill in our students a personal relevancy to history. There is nothing that can be done to change the past, and in that sense nothing inherently practical about knowing about it. However, in understanding that past, we gain insight into how best to tread into the future. And not only that, but we do so with a better understanding of ourselves in the process. Each of us is profoundly influenced by the course of history, which has embedded within us a set of biases, perspectives, and values, many of which we may take for granted. Therefore, by studying history, we do not merely study those who have gone before us, we study those who are a part of us.
Lao Tzu, the ancient Taoist philosopher is quoted as having said “knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” In the more contemporary world, Gandhi exhorted each one to “be the change you want to see in the world.” If we can effectively make the case to each student that they must know history, both to avoid its mistakes, but also to better understand themselves, history will continue to have a place in our future.
Belanger, Elizabeth. "How Now? Historical Thinking, Reflective Teaching, and the Next Generation of History Teachers." The Journal of American History 97, no. 4 (2011): 1079-088. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41508917.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. "Church History as Vocation and Moral Discipline." Church History 70, no. 1 (2001): 1-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3654408.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 1, 1760-1776. Ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, pp 243-247.
Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John Holms, April 22, 1820. Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 12. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905, p. 159. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/famous-jefferson-quotes
Shaw, George B. “Appendix 2 to Man and Superman”, Selected Plays with Prefaces, vol. 3, p. 742 (1948).
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.