I think all my history teachers from Elementary through High school were trained by the same person because they all stared class out with the same question, “Why do we learn about history?” And the conclusion was always the same: So that we don’t repeat our mistakes.
I don’t disagree with the value of this answer, but it is superficial and incomplete.
The first time I went snorkeling was in Maui in my late 30s. My friend was headed to Maui for a work trip and invited me to come along, all I needed to pay for airfare, so naturally the right thing to do was to go to Maui for the week. While she was off doing work stuff during the day, I’d cruise around on a bike with my newly purchased fins and snorkeling gear meandering from one beach to another. It was my third day out exploring beaches that I came upon this cove at the end of a narrow forgotten road far beyond the hot tourist spots. There wasn’t a single person there, just me and the ocean. Beneath the calm blue water I could spot a few colorful fish swimming in the shallow water, so I decided to put on my mask and fins and check it out. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my face broke the surface of the water. Beneath the translucent water that I had just been staring at was a world brimming with life and activity. I was surrounded by so many different varieties of fish and plants and colors and movement. I swam alongside the schools of fish gently rocking back and forth with the tide. It was only when I brought my head out of the water that the spell was broken. There is so much you miss when you just look at the surface of the ocean.
If our only reason for learning about historical events is so that we don’t make the same mistakes, we’ll never experience the expansiveness that comes when we go beyond the surface.
One of my favorite books is written by Timothy Egan called The Worst Hard Time. I was tasting the dust in my mouth for weeks after reading it. How was it possible that I made it into adulthood and knew so little about the Dust Bowl? Yes, we need to learn and remember about those moments so we don’t make the same catastrophic mistakes, but that’s not what keeps pulling me learning about significant moments from the past.
When I break beneath the surface of history, it changes me. It pressures me to confront the person I and consider who I want to become. Humanity looks so nice and tidy and put together when things are calm, but then a moment comes, a crucible, that exposes the raw character of an individual. What would you do in the face of injustice? What would you do when power is suddenly thrust upon you? What would you do when standing up for your values and beliefs puts the lives of your family at risk? Who will you choose to become when the rain doesn’t come for days that stretch into weeks and months drying up all hope and health? How will you treat others? Will stand silently in the shadows?
The stories that are the most touching, the most inspiring, the most memorable, are the stories of those individuals who do morally courageous things in the face of so much pressure to do otherwise. It the stories of individuals who do not justify resorting to poor behavior because of their circumstances.
Every time I break the surface of history and witness someone’s story, I can’t help but wonder what would I have done? What if I was a Hutu living in Rwanda during 1990? What if I was a Tutsi and watched my neighbors slaughter my family and friends? What if I had a farm in Oklahoma in the 1930s, would I have stayed? What if I lived in Salam, Massachusetts in 1692 and someone accused my friend of being a witch? Would I stand up to protect her name knowing they might accuse me too?
History is about the decisions you make in the face of difficulty. It’s about the creation of moral courage. I love watching the transformation of one who started off small and weak winching and cowering at the slighted injustice, but who consistently makes decisions to hold to their integrity. That very simple choice transforms them into a morally courageous hero.