The Habersham School is a PK3 – 12 private Classical Christian school in Savannah, GA.
by Toph Beach: Upper School Humanities Teacher
Those who cannot remember the past are, we are often reminded, doomed to repeat it. George Santayana’s aphorism functions as the perfect threat from a history teacher: if you don’t review your notes, not only will you fail the quiz, you’ll send us all back to the Great Depression! (As if our high schoolers weren’t stressed enough . . .)
I think, however, that this saying might encourage us to view history in a misleading way, as if events proceed in a cyclical fashion, and only an enlightened public can liberate the nation from samsara. It’s true that intellectuals sometimes speak in this manner. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his analysis of the French Revolution, wrote that “history is a gallery of pictures of which few are originals and many are copies.” But Tocqueville’s pithiness outpaces reality. History doesn’t repeat itself in an ordinary pattern, and expecting similar outcomes from facially similar situations can be misguided or even catastrophic.
Consider the wide gulf between the First and Second World War. The Western Front was a mess of trenches and barbed wire, two sides stuck in a muddy, bloody impasse. Twenty years later, German tanks and aircraft had no trouble invading and occupying most of Europe within a matter of months. French generals who had expected to dig defensive positions and hold the line were badly mistaken and quickly defeated.
A second challenge is that, even if history repeats, we do not know which history will repeat. For example, pundits and prognosticators have drawn all sorts of parallels to the year 2020. Is it like 1919, when the Spanish flu took half a million American lives? Is it like 1968, when protestors marched for racial justice and rioters burned buildings? Is it like 2000, when political campaigns appealed to the courts over the presidential election? Perhaps any or all of them, but the abundance of correlations makes it harder to tease out the effects or particular significant events.
So why study history? Do past events teach us anything about contemporary challenges? Absolutely—studying them can be extraordinarily valuable for analyzing the present. But if I may modify Tocqueville’s analogy of a gallery of paintings, with many originals and few copies, I would say the gallery features artwork influenced by those of previous masters. The well-trained eye can spot the traces of Rubens in a Rembrandt, though superficially the two pieces may appear quite different. And while an unfamiliar viewer might walk down a hall of Dutch paintings and see only windmills and dour self-portraits (my usual reaction), a discerning critic apprehends the development of the genres and appreciates both the homages and the innovations.
Of course, that sort of training involves patient study. But it also involves a kind of intellectual humility, the willingness to lay down the expectation to see the present mirrored in the past, to let the past be itself in all its shades of strangeness. It’s always exciting to see students make a connection between the past and the present, but the most thrilling moments for me occur when students linger among the evidence, identify their confusion, and attempt to pin down its source. That tells me that they are not treating historical events as encrypted messages about the front-page news, but approaching them in a teachable spirit. When students do that, they’re not doomed to repeat the past, or to misread the past, but instead to recognize its indelible though often subtle marks on our present. And—who knows?—perhaps they’ll even pass the quiz.