Priscilla Yun/Fourth Estate

In some cases, history can be at the center of a battle of how we remember the foundation of a nation. In others, it can be the focal point of worries about declining knowledge. When these are the choices, it’s no surprise that many students hate history. But it is still a valuable part of academia — just not for the reasons that are commonly shared.

Sometime in your life, someone has probably told you, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana may be credited with this popular saying, but it hasn’t held true.

Humanity is taught history, but constantly repeats it. World War I was followed by World War II. If humanity learned from the past, then it would have actually stopped genocides after the Holocaust. Sadly, the genocides of Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda and many others still happened. If that isn’t enough, history has shown us numerous pandemics, yet we couldn’t stop this one. Remembering history isn’t enough to stop it from repeating.

Framing history in the classroom shouldn’t be done using Santayana’s quote. History’s sole purpose isn’t to scour the past to be prepared to ring the warning bell when things get too familiar. At times, that can be useful, but history has much more to offer. 

The very essence of why we are the way we are in the present is found by digging through our past. Scouring endless historical documents, analyzing fossils, preserving artifacts and sharing these findings with the world are what help us contextualize our present. That’s not useless, that’s progress.

How we ended up where we are now is always up for debate. Some people point to certain parts of history over others. This leads to infighting amongst historians and historical reframing by politicians. But the everlasting pursuit for the true story, the one path that led us to this moment in time, is still worth the search. History will help us decide on where we need to aim our future.

Historians don’t get enough credit for just how much power they hold in our society. I’m not just talking about the people who dig through artifacts from centuries ago, but the people who write the first draft of history: journalists. Their power to frame the national conversation is vital, not just to our present, but to our future. How the moments of today will be remembered decades from now all depends on how the journalists of the present frame what will become the past.

Make no mistake, our present-day historians will continue to argue. Last year alone, the framing of racial reckoning will certainly be remembered differently depending on which historians you choose to believe. This power matters as it can change the mind of how a person votes, spends their money, invests their time and raises their kids. Historians hold a tight grip on our future. 

That’s why we learn history. Not because without it we are “doomed” to repeat it, but because our next collective step is best informed by our past. 

Should we federally legalize marijuana? Many advocates will center their arguments around the history of the war on drugs. How do we solve the student debt crisis? Politicians will point towards their own economic histories for a solution. Do we need to abolish the electoral college? That’s when the long history of American elections becomes extremely relevant. 

We need to realize that the goalposts of the future are positioned by the past. The good news is that we’re living in the present. This is where we take action.