atop the moral pyre

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Teaching history, a question I hear over and over again is: why does it matter? Why study the past when the present and future is what impacts me? Equally common is the tired response, that has been thrown into every personal statement to study the subject at university for time immemorial: that we need the lessons of the past to inform us of our imminent future. I assume it should read “that we need the lessons…] and to avoid all those mistakes our inferior ancestors fell headlong into. And so it goes on, weak points circling like a drunkard chasing his own thoughts.

Having spent a modest proportion of my limited years floundering in the pool of education, I feel that yes, there is a point to studying history beyond the fact that it’s like reading the best damn novel ever written. Patterns repeat themselves as humanity staggers from one crisis to the next, the problem therefore being not one of history, but learning from history. Appreciation differs from action, and just as in that infamous period of the 1920’s and 30’s – from Turkey to the USA and many places in between, the press are now criticised and censored; alternative truths are peddled and charismatic bullies use real or perceived threats from political, military or religious factions to push through powers of alarming elasticity. The sad truth is there could well be another Hitler just around the corner, and society will almost certainly not realise until it’s all too late.

At its most fundamental, history is the study of people and their stories. Many of these remain remarkably similar: the rich will always be exploitative, the weak will be repressed, religions will rise and fall and dictators will out-stay their bl**dy welcome, preying on human fears and flaws – convincing them that aggression and conflict will solve their problems. If history has also taught us anything then, it’s that we’re all going to hell in a handcart: but at least my students will be safe in their knowledge of why the world is burning, atop their moral pyre, even though they don’t stand a chance of preventing it.