Those who do not learn from history…

are condemned never to repeat it.

There’s a myth that we have nothing to learn from history but how to avoid its mistakes, distilled in the famous aphorism from philosopher George Santayana. This myth is very attractive — it tells us we who know the rules can be better than our misguided and morally bereft predecessors.

This myth is a fallacy. We cannot look around us and reasonably claim we are much smarter than our predecessors. But more importantly, it’s already obvious that we all learn, and want to learn, to repeat the past. We may lie to ourselves that history was all bad and to love it is repugnant — and then we have the audacity to go home and join communal traditions, search out old music, and collect books, art, and memories. For the historians among us, we have the audacity to study history.

Despite all the untruths we tell ourselves, every single student of history loves the past in some way. Of course, it would be dangerous and anti-humanist not to; people throughout time have felt all the same happiness, love, stagnation, fury, and devastation that we do; if we refuse to understand them in this, we erase their voices.

I don’t seek to claim that we refuse to learn from the good parts. We all do, and we’re not good at hiding it. The real issue, which I believe deserves more recognition, is that many of us go around pretending to believe in the absolute bankruptcy of the past, in order to gain moral or intellectual clout.

Yes, it is clear to me that history is full of awful events and institutions: some more obvious, like slavery or genocide, and some that require the good-faith work of historians to uncover, like redlining or the dog-whistling of bigots. But it is equally clear to me, as a person and as a practitioner of history, that there are parts of the past that call to me.

This comes in many forms. For example, when I look at the books or the stereo I bought in early January 2021, part of me longs for the warmth and color and sounds of that moment in time — to lie under my electric blanket as I did then, and watch the snow fall outside the window of my tiny Cambridge apartment. I long for this despite the fact that in January 2021, I was miserable and alone. I had not seen anyone for months thanks to the pandemic, I would not see them for many months after, and I lived in constant fear of accidentally catching and transmitting that deadly virus to the immune-compromised family members with whom I stayed.

A very different example comes in the form of hearing my grandfather recount memories of his childhood. He and his family were, and still are, survivors of the German Holocaust against Jewish people. His father escaped a Vichy internment camp. His family barely escaped Europe with their lives, and some didn’t make it at all. Those who did — including my grandfather and his parents — settled in Quito, Ecuador, arriving in the country from Spain after an absurd 6,000-mile boat ride across the Atlantic and all the way around Cape Horn. When they settled in Quito, they had little money, experienced occasional tragedy, and carried the immense trauma of survivorship.

And yet, when my grandfather tells me stories of the old days, sometimes he smiles, and I do too. I love his story, passed down through the generations, of my great grandfather as a child in a Fin d’Siècle western German cafe asking for ein bier und die zeitung, bitte — “a beer and the newspaper, please” — because he’d seen his father ask for the same. We both smile when my grandfather recounts his fledgling crushes as a small child in Chateaubriand in occupied France. I truly love hearing about him borrowing vinyl records from clients of his electrical-engineer father, and listening to BBC on his jury-rigged short-wave radio.

I feel comfort in all these stories, and a drive to learn from his experiences and choices, good and bad. If I didn’t, that would only mean I wasn’t listening well enough.

We all live through the miseries of history. For some, like those who experience genocide, slavery, or systemic bigotry, these miseries become cataclysms of despair.

But do we not also live through some of history’s pleasures and frissons? No side of the past needs to erase or drown out the other: to study history is, after all, a relentless pursuit of nuance. We are all students of our own history — we can allow ourselves to enjoy the good parts, while we also hate and learn from the bad.

(Featured image: Photograph from the grounds of Edinburgh Castle)

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