by Mindy Clegg
Why should history be a part of our core curriculum in high schools and colleges? A variety of arguments have been put forth to support a historical education. Most notably is how history can inculcate a better understanding of the world. It can help us become more empathetic people, and better citizens, too. The kind of history we teach is also up for debate. A post-colonialist urges people to focus on more inclusive narratives that highlights the subaltern. A feminist lobbies for more women’s voices, while an anti-racist argues for the importance of racism in understanding the modern world. All this matters, but I’d also argue that understanding history as made by people, and as such complicated and contingent, can helps us to shape our future more effectively.
None of us can predict that future. However, a deep familiarity of history can give us a general idea of how change over time happens and how we can make better choices than those made in the past. But given that more and more, our educational system has become captured by corporations seeking to build a better employee and by individuals looking to indoctrinate rather than educate (see the anti-trans and anti-CRT bent of the MAGA movement), this is becoming increasingly difficult. Even some well-meaning progressives tend to focus on objectifying history and making it seem like something that happened, or at best, a celebration of “great men” rather than events that everyday people made happen. Our love of heroic stories of individuals and our distaste of subjectivity and complexity has blinded us to just how critical it is that we understand how we got here. But by ensuring that our students have a better understanding of how people make the arc of history bend, we can learn to chart a better, more humane path into that unknown future.
Let’s take an example from current events. The Kosovar border with Serbia seethes today, years after the wars that dissolved socialist Yugoslavia. According to a recent update in The Guardian, ethnic Serb protesters barricaded a major road on December tenth. Authorities in the Kosovar capital sought to bring several former Serb officers to Pristina, presumable to face charges for ongoing violence. The Serbian government seems determined to keep walking the fine-line between supporting the separatist impulse in Northern Kosovo and jumping through the hoops for entry into the EU. But what have any of the major players learned from several decades of conflict in the Balkans? Unfortunately, it seems like not much. Everyone seem set on ignoring the alternatives to nationalist identities that Tito’s Socialist government promoted that seemed to contribute to social cohesion. That increasingly fell by the wayside after Tito’s death in 1980. The Slovenian band Laibach noted the problems with the nationalist narratives that were being promoted in the 1980s at a show in Belgrade in 1989. They connected the language being used by nationalist President Slobodan Milosevic in some of his speeches to that of the Nazis and of western appeasement to Hitler.
The solutions arrived at by the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia merely entrenched nationalist sentiments rather than offering any alternatives. The end of Kosovar conflict did likewise, freezing those tensions in amber. Since no one sought to address the more complex history of the region’s competing nationalist narratives, those just ended up being replicated. This was a very postmodern way of dealing with these problems, that there are no alternatives to what exists.
Dealing directly with such animosities, untangling and upending them if possible can go much further in creating a long-lasting peace—but what provides a good historical model for that kind of peace-making? In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles (the civil war in Northern Ireland). The post-Apartheid government of South Africa set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which focused on restorative justice. Since the 1970s, Germany worked to incorporate and educate young people about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. How successful were these peace-makers approaches to forms of violence and oppression in the modern state? I’d argue mixed. Brexit ignited unrest in some areas of Northern Ireland. In both South Africa and Germany, committed white supremacists have sought to undermine the progress made since the end of those racial states. Does this mean that these attempts to right wrongs are fatally flawed? I would argue no, as these regimes, however flawed, moved the needle and peace general holds in all three places. They could certainly be improved, but actively seeking to work through social problems via politics instead of violence is always a step forward. A deeper understanding the historical periods that led up to the conflicts in question, the nature of those conflicts, and a better understanding of the claims of all sides in these conflicts by citizens of these countries could help preserve the peace there.
The current neo-liberal, end-of-history era and the domination of corporations in public life, means that deeper understanding of the flow of time is not always welcome. As Stuart Jeffries showed in his book, postmodernism has proven to be a mixed bag. One thing that seems trues is that the era of postmodernism has opened the door to various kinds of criticism of the modern era. Some of those criticisms are certainly necessary. But this includes criticism and “solutions” from the far right. These figures seek to argue that fascism can still be our collective solution to the problems of history, though they distort historical narratives for their own twisted ends. There have been serious attempts by a globalized white supremacist movement to rebuild the color line in the years after the Cold War. This era coincided with the rise of the internet, which white supremacists have embraced as a means of strengthening their collective ties. The lone wolf strategy promoted by American white supremacists like Tom Metzger and others aimed at bringing down the “new world order” has proven a somewhat successful one in the age of digital interconnectedness. Although they have not won, the far right is on the march globally and in power in many places. Part of what makes these ideologies so popular among some is how they give easy explanations for the many complex problems in our society in a simple and succinct way, with easy solutions, too. People want someone to blame for their struggles (real or imagined) and often reject ideas which seem to blame them for the struggles of others. Couple those with the human propensity for seeing their own past via rose-colored glasses, it makes for easily disseminating violent and eliminationist ideologies like white supremacy.
This brings us back to the critical role of history in public education. As a field of study, history can highlight complexity and contingency in the process of change over time. It shows that there are no easy answers, but that there are answers if we’re willing to work together. The idea the far right likes to invoke, that something was fated to happen and there could have been no other outcome is anathema to deeper historical thinking. Nor do historians trade in history happening to us instead of people making history happen. This seems like a key point often lost on students in history classes. But breaking through that point could help students to understand why history matters. If they just assume that history are events that happens outside of people, then they assume that they aren’t makers of history, when they very much are those very makers. More than anything, those of us who teach history should make the argument for the importance of historical education based on how historical thinking is complex thinking–something we could all use more of. We should also foreground the role of human agency. Those concepts should be valued across all aspects of society. People across the humanities should push back hard against the narrative that education is only about getting a job, because we’re just not just built for labor. The truth is that we are built for complexity, for joy, for shared meaning-making. If we can help our students understand that history can show us that and can show us what we could be capable of, we can unlock a whole set of more complicated thinking for them.