History and Humility

At the start of each school year, I pose the question to my students: why do we study history? Each year their answers become more thoughtful and nuanced. They begin with the standard “so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past” and different variations of “because it is interesting and good” to know history for its own sake. Both are fine answers and open the door to productive and edifying discussions. I press them on this question because ultimately, I want their thinking about history to include an understanding of how its study can, and should, produce humility in them as students and as people. 

The tie between history and humility is not immediately obvious to many people, but it is something that has increasingly preoccupied my thoughts in recent years. It is easy for historical knowledge to have the opposite effect: producing arrogance and condescension the moment it is attained by young students who can’t help but feel more important by virtue of knowing more facts than their peers or, heaven forbid, their parents. Many a teenage tyrant has sprung to life out of a history classroom where newly acquired knowledge inflates one’s sense of importance and turns their otherwise common opinions into statements of professorial authority. I must apologize to all parents of my students who have been subjected to these bouts of pseudo-intellectual despotism. This is not what I hope or want for my students as I teach them each day, and I actively work to combat the natural human tendency toward pride self-importance.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the opposite problem with, paradoxically, the same effect. Students who do not, or will not, see the value in studying history are thinking and acting from a place of arrogance in their hearts. It could be chalked up to apathy, teen angst, or simple interest in other things, but a complete dismissal of the story of all humanity as not worth the time of any individual is a profoundly hubristic statement, even if made implicitly.

So, whether we err by weaponizing history for our own ends or fail to give it the time, attention, and respect it merits, history provides students an opportunity to examine themselves and reflect. As a teacher of history, I feel responsible to make space for those moments of introspection and self-examination for my students. When we begin the year with the question of why we study history, I encourage them to consider two assertions which I hold to be statements of truth. 

The first is that, as a human being- a member of our human race- we are obligated and even duty-bound to carry the stories and memories of our forebearers and transmit them to future generations. If students understand the study of history as something more than mere acquisition of knowledge, that they may or may not be interested in, but rather as a noble burden they bear for the sake of the past and the future, it becomes about more than just themselves. The work of learning and studying has weight and it matters to them in a new way. If students conceive of history in this way, it orients their gaze away from themselves and outward toward the world and the duties they owe to their fellow men- past, present, and future. We began the year reading Elie Wiesel’s introductory essay to his book Night. And from that reading, the sacredness of memory and its transmission was revealed to them. As we close the year, my hope is that my students remember how precious our collective human memory is and continue the work of preserving and sharing it long after they have left my classroom. 

The second assertion is the claim that by studying the past and the people who inhabit it, we grow in our understanding of ourselves and come closer to attaining the Delphic command to “know thyself”. This self-knowledge is not solipsistic though, because the knowledge gained from history cannot help but impress upon us the reality of our relative smallness when compared to the vast expanse of human history, experience, knowledge, and progress. To see ourselves truthfully in the scope of all history is to see ourselves humbly.  When I see my students marveling at the resilience of the human spirit as we study the trials of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, it fills me with hope. My heart’s desire is that the wonder they feel at learning the great feats of humanity will produce a proper veneration for those who came before them and left such examples to emulate. And as they bear witness to the depths of human depravity, I hope they internalize the truth that the greatness and the misery of history are both, equally, part of our human plight. As much as we may like to, we cannot pick and choose which parts of our human story we will claim as our own and which ones we will reject and claim no responsibility for. For better or worse, we are the inheritors of it all and if we wish to make the story of the future a better one, then humility – a proper understanding of who we are and where we have come from – must be the starting point.