"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Back to school…with much to learn…

Regardless of the particular month, it is always the right time to learn.

Nevertheless, as it marks the beginning of the school year, the end of August/start of September stands out as the societally mandated moment at which education (“schooling”) officially resumes. It is a moment in which some are putting the final details on their plans for what knowledge they will impart even as others ready themselves to receive that aforementioned knowledge. And as the school year resumes the question that confronts – and potentially confounds – many a student is: “what will I learn this year?” along with its twin “why do I need to learn it?” along with these questions’ cousin “but, what do I need to learn this year?”

It is easy to answer the above questions in a banal fashion. Obviously, a student will learn the things being taught in a particular class, and the reason “why” will be so that they can finish that class with a passing grade. Granted, it is easy to quibble about the degree to which that really represents “learning” versus the degree to which it represents being able to regurgitate information in a superficial manner. As for the question of “what” one needs to learn, this is a matter regarding which many students feel they have precious little choice. A student needs to learn the things that will satisfy requirements X, Y and Z so that they remain on track towards completion of whatever program it is in which they are presently. Indeed, in many cases a student may find that these decisions are made for them by a murky assemblage comprised of faceless individuals who, apparently, know best. And where a student has some freedom to pick the “what” with minimum constraints that which will be picked may often consist of that which seems easiest or most enjoyable.

Yet the matter of “why” and “what” do not seem to be done proper justice by such simplistic answers. Though it is hard to deny that those are the manner of answers one often hears. After all, such questions are often restricted to a sense in which they are only treated as applicable to individual students in individual classrooms who are busy pursuing individual goals. But if one attempts to move away from thinking solely about what needs to be learned only in terms of school it may well be that different types of answers emerge. And if one considers the state of the world at the moment (including, as it does, a race for the Presidency [in the US]) it should be clear that thinking about the “what” and “why” of learning is not merely academic navel-gazing but a matter of grave importance.

Writing in 1943, Simone Weil commented:

“No other method exists for acquiring knowledge about the human heart than the study of history coupled with the experience of life, in such a way that the two throw light upon each other.” (Weil, 229)

Such a sentiment might result in many a derisively cocked eyebrow and even a smattering of scoffs. With the target of mockery not really being Weil’s mention of “the human heart” but her emphasis on “the study of history.” After all, history gets short shrift in an atmosphere wherein ever more educational emphasis is placed on STEM fields, and students concerned (not without reason) regarding their future employment prospects may struggle to answer the “why do I need to learn this” question when it comes to history. Too often history is treated in educational institutions as the sort of subject where all that one learns is names and dates so that they can be spat back out for the test after which such information is swiftly forgotten. Contemporary technological society is fiercely committed in its orientation to the future, to always staring straight ahead, and schooling in such a society bears the undeniable markings of this ideology’s influence. History is treated as a storehouse of trivia, and thus the subject becomes trivial.

After all, if you look back at the past while sprinting into the future you might not be able to move ahead at full speed. Worse, you might wind up tripping over something and significantly delaying your forward progress. To move forward while looking backwards requires a modulation of speed – and this is an alteration that is more likely to involve slowing down than speeding up. Yet it is through the study of history that one can recognize that the stumbling blocks that are arrayed in front are very similar to ones that can be found behind – and it is by looking backwards that one can come to understand which obstacles can be jumped over, which require careful navigation, and which actually require the runner to backtrack in order to select a different course altogether. If you only look ahead it is easy to forget about the forks in the road that were not taken in the past – alternate pathways to which it may be worth returning.

By digging into the past one is often able to considerably demystify the present – for the trends, trials and tribulations that wrack the present have not just suddenly emerged out of the void. In truth, this can make history a somewhat maddening thing to study, not because history is a storehouse of useless information, but because investigating history proves time and harrowing time just how little people manage to learn from history. Many people are familiar with the old canard about “those who don’t learn from the past” – but a glance at the headlines of the present day make it clear that people have internalized that cliché whilst not actually learning from its warning. Or, to put it slightly differently, ours is not the first time period in which xenophobic nativism and nationalism have found an outlet in the form of a showman running for office; ours is not the first time that society has been shaken up by technological advances; ours is not the first age when apocalyptic premonitions have been voiced by the scientific community; and ours is definitely not the first time in which people cannot quite decide whether to look towards the future with excitement or fear. While it is certainly true that every age is confronted with its own sets of particular problems (the specifics of a challenge may be new, but the challenge itself is not new) this is a mire which we have become stuck in due to the course set in the past.

History, of course, can be a very unpleasant thing to revisit. After all, history represents a litany of violence, hatred, injustice, suffering, repression, reversals, and numerous other negative descriptors. And though some may seek to ferret out the evidence of progress in this historical sweep – evidence that things are improving – such glints of silver are found not in the dark clouds but in the blood stained mud, and the shine may be actually come not from a silver lining but from a bullet casing. This is not to scoff at the argument that things have improved over time (penicillin – for instance – is a pretty great improvement), but there is still a lot of improving that needs to be done, and it is rather silly to think that such improvements can be made by looking only towards the future. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten, that history is a complex topic – one that too often has served to simply act as a testament to the qualities of the victors. And thus, to be clear, let it be emphasized that the engagement with history that is here recommended is one that seeks a broad and encompassing reckoning with the topic – one that looks to history not just for the legend of the conquerors but for the account of those who were conquered, those who were oppressed, those who were dismissed as fools. The version of history which requires contemplation is not the account of “the great men” but of all humans. For, if one wants to improve the world it is incumbent upon them to understand how it is that this world has come to be in its present state – and history is where those answers will largely be found. Or, as Gustav Landauer noted in 1911:

“We are the heirs of the past, whether we like it or not.” (Landauer, 139)

Given the current state of the world it is easy to understand those who are not particularly pleased to be such woeful scions. It can be easy to feel as though when history’s will was read we found ourselves the inheritors of all of the debts and none of the castles. Yet we have reached the present only thanks to the journey through the past. Every period in history has been one in which to be aware of the moments that have come before has been worthwhile, and thus we can return to the earlier “back to school” questions of “what do I need to learn?” and “why do I need to learn it” and suggest that, at least part of, the answer to the “what” is “history” and the answer to the “why” is so that one can stop replicating the problems and failed solutions of the past.

Hopefully our era will one day be looked back on as history. It would be very nice if the denizens of the future could say that we were able to learn from the past. After all, their future depends on it.


Works Cited

Landauer, Gustav. For Socialism. Candor: Telos Press, 1978.

Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. Routledge Classics, 2002.


Related Content

Back to School – 2015

Back to School – 2014

Things I learned during my first semester of teaching undergrads…

Things I wish I had known before applying to PhD programs

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Back to school…with much to learn…

  1. David
    August 31, 2016

    Thanks for this…it’s an old chestnut amongst historians that they’re the few to know that things can always get worse, because they have…

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This entry was posted on August 31, 2016 by in Education, Ethics, Higher Education, History, K-12, Society and tagged , .

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