What’s the Point of History?

by W.D. Ehrhart

The writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Mark Twain gets credit for saying, “History never repeats itself, but it often does rhyme.” Pearl Buck said, “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” Howard Zinn wrote, “If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. If you were born yesterday, then any leader can tell you anything.”

I found myself thinking about that quote of Zinn’s soon after September 11th, 2001, when President George W. Bush explained that terrible day by declaring, “They hate us because of our freedoms,” which simply negates, obliterates, and erases centuries of world history.

More recently, I heard counterterrorism expert John Nagl declare that ISIS “wants to drag the world back to the Middle Ages.” As I listened to him, I found myself thinking, “Well, Saudi Arabia has never left the Middle Ages, and we’ve got no problem with them. So what’s really going on here?”

Why am I writing about this? I recently learned that the school board in the community where I grew up is trying to get World History removed from the courses required for a student to graduate from high school.

Proponents seem to think “the move would give students more flexibility to pursue career-relevant courses, boosting their chances of acceptance into more select universities.” One advocate argued that the U.S. is in a battle with China and Russia, so supremacy in technology is vitally important, “a lot more important than a lot of history[.]”

I don’t know how many high school teens already know what careers they wish to pursue when they graduate from college. I sure didn’t know when I was a high schooler. And very few of the high school students I’ve taught over multiple decades had any clear idea, either.

Moreover, high schoolers get admitted to “more select universities” on the basis of how well they have performed in the courses they did take rather then on whether or not they had taken courses in computer technology or fundamentals of engineering or whatever.

And as for the U.S. battle with Russia and China, don’t you think it might be useful to know how and why that “battle” has come to be? If you know the origins of a struggle, it might be helpful in choosing how one responds to that struggle. Let me give you a very personal but relevant case in point:

Back when I was graduating from Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Pennsylvania in 1966, I could have gone to college, but I chose instead to enlist in the U.S. Marines. Less than a year later, I ended up in Vietnam. I survived, but 58,000 young Americans didn’t, and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians lost their lives. And in the end, the Vietnamese sent us packing.

Imagine my surprise when I finally learned enough history to discover that, while Ho Chi Minh was a communist, he was not taking orders from the Soviets or the Chinese, but had been engaged in a lifelong struggle to free his country from foreign domination, first French and then American. That Vietnam and China were—historically and to this very day—bitter enemies. That Vietnam had resisted Chinese occupation for millennia. Millennia! Going all the way back to the 2nd century BCE.

It would have been nice to know a bit of that history. It would have saved me a lot of trouble. It would have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble. And a lot of money. And a lot of lives. And a lot of anguish and pain and misery. It might have made me a lot less gullible when Lyndon Johnson told me, “If we do not stop the communists in Vietnam, we will one day have to fight them on the sands of Waikiki.”

So if you are going to tell me that history—not just American history, but also world history—doesn’t matter and isn’t important, you are pretty much telling me that you are willfully ignorant and wish to remain so. Understanding the world you live in, and how it came to be so, is fundamental to making good decisions in what you choose to believe and not believe, in your career, in your daily life, and perhaps most importantly, in the voting booth.

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W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Company, Inc.

1 thought on “What’s the Point of History?”

  1. Thank you for your beautifully written and powerful piece. I was touched to see your mention of my father, Howard Zinn, and he would have been pleased to be in the company of Mark Twain.

    You probably already know this, but the Zinn Education Project offers free resources and curricula for teaching people’s history to teachers and teacher educators around the country – https://www.zinnedproject.org.

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