On the lessons of history

Here’s a transcript of the concluding remarks I made today, at the end of my last world history class for the semester. My students are non-history majors who will not be taking many more history courses (if at all). And yet I hope they came to understand the importance of learning history and what lessons it has to offer us in the current political and social climate.


I began this course with the story of Olaudah Equiano, the 18th-century freed slave who wrote a best-selling memoir of his experience in the Atlantic Slave Trade. I made the case then that the story of slavery, and therefore of prejudice, exploitation of the weak, colonialism, and racism, is one that is very much relevant to our world today. I chose to open our course on world history that way, because I wanted to demonstrate that there’s a real value to studying world history. In other words, I wanted to give all of you, who were taking this course as part of a mandatory core-curriculum, a good reason to be here.

Last year, a student in this class wrote in his evaluation of the course that using Equiano’s example was inappropriate, because by so doing I essentially argued that there were racial inequalities and tensions in our society, and that this – the mere statement about racial inequality – was not based on any evidence and represented political bias. Now, surely we can argue about the reasons for race problems in American and other societies, but as a historian and a teacher, I have the duty not only to show that they exist, but to speak up against racism, which, as I’ve argued repeatedly throughout the semester, has absolutely nothing to do with political views. Racism, just like misogyny or homophobia, is always wrong, and I will always speak against it, even at the cost of making some students uncomfortable, because one lesson we should learn from history is that you should, in fact, feel uncomfortable if you still possess medieval social views in 2015.

And, if we need a reminder that Equiano’s story is still very much relevant, we need to look no further than our own supreme court. Yesterday, at a hearing about an affirmative action case brought against the University of Texas-Austin, one of the judges had the following to say: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.” Then he added: “I’m just not impressed by the fact the University of Texas may have fewer [blacks]. Maybe it ought to have fewer. I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.” This is a US Supreme Court judge in 2015. So yes, we still have some lessons to learn from Equiano.

Most of you will not end up studying history in college, or as history teachers, museum curators, or historians. But the value of studying history – and the humanities in general – goes well beyond the profession of history. Indeed, the difference between the business or nursing major who has not taken courses in the humanities and social sciences, and the one who has, is the difference between a college graduate with a professional degree, and an educated person.

The first may be very good at his or her job. He or she may get a wonderful job offer straight out of college, and even go to a fancy private graduate program for a master’s degree. But the uneducated or narrowly educated professional will likely be quite useless when it comes to any other area. I can’t even tell you how many excellent lawyers, doctors, or business people I’ve met who were at the top of their game, but sounded like someone who barely graduated middle school when they tried discussing social or political issues.

At times, I looked at my partner in conversation and wanted to ask: “really, and you have a degree from that school?” Over the years I’ve learned, however, that the explanation is very simple: If you treat college as solely a professional experience, if you come to it closed-minded, if you decide to be offended every time you hear an idea that contradicts your most fundamental beliefs instead of learning something from it or engaging your professor, and if you refrain from exploring the rich array of electives in the humanities and social sciences our university, and many others, offer – you will end up just like those people: those attracted by populist and empty social and political rhetoric not grounded in evidence, those who do not accept science, and those who espouse racist ideas, the application of which could endanger the mere foundations of our society. Lamentably, there’s a growing number of people, in this country and elsewhere, who choose ignorance over reason, who speak in the name of liberty and democracy, yet effectively support ISIS’s recruiting efforts by demonstrating how intolerant our society is to others who aren’t like us. Those people may have gone to college, but they are not, by any standard, educated.

So, through numerous historical examples, from ancient Rome to Han China, from the Black Death to pre-Columbian America, from the Renaissance to the Ming-Qing transition, from the Atlantic Slave Trade to the French Revolution, and from Nazi Germany to the Cold War, I demonstrated time and again why history matters, why we need to know it well – not because it repeats itself, as the cliché goes – but rather because it makes us worldly individuals who understand how the world works, who can easily reject political nonsense, and who realize what might be the consequences of certain actions on society and the world at large.

History is never detached from social and political implications. As balanced as I’ve tried to be in this course, I surely managed to annoy some of you. Although I had no particular interest in making any of you feel uncomfortable, I believe that disagreeing with your professor from time to time is part of a healthy learning process. Some of you chose to take me up on my offer and talk to me personally about my interpretation of history, how I presented things in class, and why you had a different take on them. I applaud those of you who did that. For the rest of you, I’d say you should always learn the topic in question well and argue with your professor when you have a disagreement. As long as you are respectful and know your stuff, most teachers would appreciate the intellectual challenge. I surely do.

Finally, I’d like to encourage all of you to take another history course, and more humanities courses in general. Most programs have some room for electives, and you should take advantage of that. You may think that taking such courses won’t teach you anything tangible (except perhaps writing), but in the long run they will make you an attractive job candidate, a better professional, and a more engaging citizen and member of our society.


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