“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
So goes Winston Churchill’s famous, if somewhat clichéd phrase. Often, the study of history, whether at an academic level, or simply as a hobby, is dismissed as useless; a means by which we look backwards and not forwards. As a history student, I may be a little biased, but I wholeheartedly dispute this. Despite the cliched phrases surrounding the value of history, they are nevertheless true – is it not the case that clichés become clichés for a reason, after all?
It seems appropriate, as we draw towards the end of a year of many momentous anniversaries, that we recognise the importance of historical knowledge. It seems that now, more than ever, in our ‘post-truth’ culture, that it is crucial to learn from the past. In 2017 alone, we have witnessed anniversaries of huge shifts in the course of history. March marked 100 years since the Russian Revolution and May 100 years since John F. Kennedy’s birth. Halloween marked 500 years since Martin Luther inadvertently began the Protestant Reformation. 200 years since the death of Jane Austen, 150 years since the beginnings of antiseptics, 50 years since the decriminalisation of gay sex. 2017 has certainly been a year of anniversaries, as most years are.
It is easy to look back on anniversaries with a casual remark about how far we’ve come, or how much things have changed. But, it is a shame to say, that less has changed than we would like it to. The recent Paradise Papers revealed tax avoidance on a mass scale from wealthy elites, something that has been endemic throughout history. Sexual assault and harassment permeate workplaces: Harvey Weinstein would not look out of place in a pre-Suffragette world, where women were still seen as property. Myanmar’s brutal attack on the Rohingya population has disastrous parallels with the most brutal genocides of world history. The election of Donald Trump parallels with both the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, but also with Richard Nixon’s use of foreign influence to swing the election in his favour. Meanwhile, his administration seems to be reverting the world back to the Cold War era.
Historical parallels are evident wherever we look in the world today, arguably every news story has at least some reflection of a past event within it. It is more essential than ever to educate oneself about our past, and so begin to recognise such similarities. Such a recognition, can perhaps go some way towards presenting a solution to problems of global crisis today.
On a more positive note, lessons learnt from history also remind us of the huge power of individuals to change the course of history. Martin Luther, Rosa Parks, Emily Davidson, and many others provide us with examples of such change. It is crucial to harness the inspiration garnered from such historical figures and use it to change the world for the better.
It’s not all doom and gloom – the study of history can be inspiring and exciting. This is not to undermine the unique problems and issues that face 2017. But I firmly believe that many solutions to modern day political issues can be found in looking backwards a little; in taking a step back, and realising that, often, this is a crisis that has been faced (and often overcome) before. The point here is not to conflate historical events with today, in a depressing narrative of how little things have changed. The point is that it is absolutely crucial to recognise such parallels, so little by little, perhaps we can begin to learn.
Indeed, although I don’t wish to repeat myself, (unlike history); so that one day we may learn from history, and be free of our doom to repeat it.
Image: Natural History Museum