There is no Easy Way

One of the most common reasons given to justify studying history is to learn from past mistakes so they are not repeated. I’ve never really questioned it because it sounded true, but recently I’ve started to become skeptical of this stance for a few reasons.

First, when we look back at history we can find no shortage of examples where the people of a time clearly did not learn from historical events they knew about. New politicians would come, trumpeting ideas that old politicians used unsuccessfully–some with devastating consequences. Even when history is not forgotten, it repeats itself. One reason for this could be…

Second, people hardly ever learn things the easy way. As children, hearing a parent say “don’t touch that, it’s hot,” is rarely as effective a lesson as having the actual experience of getting burned. As adults, this lack of successful learning from others’ experiences can be seen in things like the anti-vaccine movement, which is often partially attributed to the fact that many vaccine opponents haven’t actually seen their friends and families and millions of other people suffering and dying from diseases that are now vaccine preventable. Reading about it isn’t the same as witnessing firsthand.

Third, sometimes people just can’t learn at all. While this may seem a bizarre statement from an educator, I’m specifically referring to ideological biases. These biases are an incredibly powerful driving force in the lack of motivation to even seek out, much less accept, information that doesn’t fit with a certain set of preconceptions. Like the skeptic arguing with a true believer: no evidence is enough to change their mind.

This is not to say that history is not worth learning, just that the usual reason might not hold up. Watching some recent political events from near and afar, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu, and remember that certain choices didn’t turn out so well last time. Perhaps we really don’t learn from history (the easy way) at all. All we can hope is that our biases don’t let us suffer through the hard way for naught.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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