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History - It’s a Mess
Anne Fierberg

We’ve all heard some paraphrased version of George Santayana’s aphorism. As a history student and teacher, I’ve heard it often and I have the quotation hanging in my classroom. I use it to explain my approach to studying history. However, I don’t let Santayana’s quotation stand alone.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana (1905)
 
We’ve all heard some paraphrased version of George Santayana’s aphorism. As a history student and teacher, I’ve heard it often and I have the quotation hanging in my classroom. I use it to explain my approach to studying history. However, I don’t let Santayana’s quotation stand alone. Next to Santayana’s words is a quotation that I sometimes prefer: “I’ve got news for you, Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive.” American writer Kurt Vonnegut penned these words in his 1987 novel, Bluebeard.
 
I try to always connect what we are studying in history class to current events in the world. Oftentimes, this approach leads to some version of the question, “If history shows us what happens when we do that, why do we keep doing it?” Students usually seemed exasperated when asking the question, as if it should be easy to avoid our past mistakes. This question is why I choose to have both quotations hanging in my room. The past teaches us a lot about our mistakes in history. No doubt, many lessons are learned by studying the events of our predecessors and every technological advancement has a foundation in a past year. Our history defines us.
 
However, history is messy. To narrow history down to a simple saying is nearly impossible. We don’t always extract the right lessons from historical examples. Human behavior follows no strict set of laws as much as we wish it might. It contradicts itself often. When we analyze and think critically, we can often theorize explanations for events only to see the opposite happen elsewhere in history. In the moment, the problems of yesterday may not seem similar to problems of today and thus we forget to consult them.
 
In history class, my goal is not to prepare my students to avoid the mistakes of our past--there are no easy lessons in history. Rather, I encourage students to think critically about those mistakes, and I strive to emphasize the complexities of history and seek out patterns. A stronger understanding of our decisions in history may not avoid mistakes in our future, but approaching the table with knowledge makes us more suited to deal with the problems of today.
 
Both Santayana and Vonnegut are correct. Our history holds valuable lessons and to ignore it would be a disservice to future generations. However, there is no rulebook on how to avoid the mistakes of our past. Part of being human is making mistakes--“that’s what it is to be alive.”
 
Anne Fierberg
Upper School History/Geography Teacher

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