History is Present: Learning From The Past Dictates Our Future
As parents are the guide of children, history should be the guide of groups of individuals, of societies.
School history is a territory of contrasts. It is often loved or hated. Teachers can make or break a history class, making it exciting or mind-numbingly boring. In many ways it is like math, which also shares these features. History and math have another thing in common: they are too important to be allowed to continue to be neglected.
If you really don’t like history in school then you do whatever you can to pass the exam, get it out of the way and think about other things that you find more interesting. My personal experience varied from year to year (funnily enough, depending on the teacher I had). What was the net effect? The history I know the best is that of 20th century Europe, with emphasis on Spain. However I cannot remember much about the rise of Arab culture, which gifted the world with some of its most beautiful architecture, to give an example. Now, either I made the mistake of not noticing the importance of history, or my teacher was not clear enough about that fact for me to notice. In any case, something went wrong.
At first sight not being able to remember what you learned about history at school may not seem too serious. To see if it is though, let’s try and answer a simple question: what is history? Could it be perhaps considered to be a detailed account of all the mistakes human kind has made, and how we adapt to them? Humans are not born with knowledge, it is something we acquire. That includes the experience of mistakes. Luckily our parents have made enough mistakes, and have learnt of enough of them from their elders, to be able to help us avoid a good few. In a way, as parents are the guide of children, history should be the guide of groups of individuals, of societies. Hence individuals must learn from the mistakes of the past to avoid collective errors in the future. In the well-known words of George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. We are now forced to ask ourselves another question: could this be behind the formation of the current political landscape in the first world?
The western world is still recovering from one of its greatest economic crises since the great depression of 1929. Recovering meaning that macroeconomic observables are returning to values which do not make big capital shiver. What about the micro-economy though, that of everyday people? It seems the working class will take a lot longer to return to its past standards after the receiving the beating of the crisis. The rise of 0-hour contracts, temporary work positions and employment agencies, lacklustre salary raises over the past decade and state sectors being generally threatened by lack of funds are forcing the workforce of Europe to choose between submission or rebellion, turning the old continent into a poaching ground for ideological populists. Could this be the cause of the recent rise of hate, for lack of a better word, which greatly benefits fascism? The Brexit vote is an excellent example of this. The referendum, promulgated by right-wing Eurosceptic parties, was an anger vote catalysed by the working forces’ current situation. It was fueled by hate wrongly directed to people of different mother tongue, people who are working class and are only trying to feed their families, people who were played by the system as much as the British. The long-term effect of Brexit is still to be seen, but I don’t feel optimistic.
What about the rest of Europe? Hate-based parties are at their most popular in a long time. Norbert Hofer and the Freedom Party in Austria lost last year’s election by a small percentage. Marine Le Pen is leading the National Front in France to its best results since the mid-90s. The Golden Dawn, a Greek party described as neo-nazi and with publicly violent members, has seats in the Hellenic and European parliaments. Passions are high in the voting population, and the solidified status of the mainstream political parties in most countries, which are doing their best to maintain the status quo, means that they generally have a core of hard supporters whose vote is difficult to sway. However, as they lose votes, and hence strength, in many cases to these surging extreme right-wing ideals, hate or racism- based policies become increasingly possible. This is a dangerous line to cross.
Is this the first time right-wing populists have used the feelings of the working class to feed power into their projects? The most important case of this has to be the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. History tells us that in the 1930s Germany was at boiling point, battered by the great depression and the Treaty of Versailles. The populist Nazi party took power with a programme that mixed socialist policies with racist or hate filled “but” statements (point number 24 is a good example, which demands freedom of religion so long as this did not go against the Germanic race), and sometimes points which were simply imperialistic (point 3 demanded enough territory to sustain the German people). Everybody knows what happened after that. World War II lasted for 6 years and left a death toll of 60 million. Shouldn’t we have learned from this? Could the similarities between 1930s and current day Europe be giving us a warning for the future?
I doubt something as serious as another world war is on its way, but WWII is an excellent example of how, if the needs of the many are not cared for, democracy can be a tool for fascism and totalitarianism to take power. Are there enough international bodies and mechanisms in place to avoid large-scale conflict? I believe so, but we are still in danger of irreversibly damaging the human rights progress of the post-WWII era. The European Union, once a symbol of hope and cooperation between the people of Europe, is suffering because of parties which try to blame the economic degradation on the people of other countries. The Schengen Agreement, which abolished borders in Europe, is in danger of disappearing and making our individual worlds small again. In Europe we are approaching dangerous levels of resentment towards other countries which resemble those of the 1930s. Even without another great war, it is clear that the consequences may be dire.
This is a mistake humanity has already made as a collective in the recent past. Even though WWII features heavily in school history, it seems this message is not getting across. Could the current rise of fascism and populism be due in part to a failure in the education of children? Should history classes be more focused on understanding the errors of the past instead of accumulating facts? Children remember what excites them, we have all been there and know the feeling. Are our children learning enough history, and more importantly, can we afford for them to not be excited by this subject?
Photograph by Corey Leopold, under the creative commons license.