The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.


Hegel said this, and, after a year of teaching everything from Ancient Greece to the Industrial Revolution, I’m inclined to agree. Every time we start a new unit, the same student always chimes in with some remark that what we’re studying now is exactly like what we studied before. Well, yes. Human nature is human nature. I’ve mentally been keeping a running list of things I’ve learned or re-affirmed from teaching history this year.

1) There are no good guys and bad guys. You could argue that there are exceptions to this. One of the most interesting things about teaching sixth graders is watching them grapple with the complexities of human nature. I’ve seen boys in love with Sparta (too many older siblings watching 300) pause and think about what it means to live a life wholly devoted to waging war. And by the end of the French Revolution most students had flip-flopped several times.

2) The best way to learn is through primary sources. Even in sixth grade. This means slowly reading out loud from Plutarch, Polybius, Livy, and more. These are the stories that they have remembered throughout the year. Facts and dates…not so much. But you ask them about Alexander’s horse, and they’ll give you an earful.

3) Everything is inter-twined. I love it when we make connections. Even if they’re very tenuous connections (Students compared France/England to Sparta/Athens because of their respective army/naval strengths). We just finished studying Latin American revolutions. I was not looking forward to this unit at all, but turns out that they all get started because of what Napoleon is doing in Europe. Who knew?

4) Toussaint L’Ouverture deserves much more credit than he gets. Yes, he gets his own blurb. I vaguely knew who he was before prepping for this unit, but since reading more and more about him he’s become one of the most fascinating historical figures I’ve studied. He had been a driver for a plantation manager before the rebellion broke out. By the end, he was successfully governing the island of Hispaniola. By all accounts he was something of a military genius, but he had never had any kind of military experience prior to the revolution. The French thought he was a hunchback. But he only looked like a hunchback (he carried a box of medical supplies under his shirt on his back to treat his soldiers when they were wounded in battle). The hunchback fact was a favorite among my students because it showed that he was a caring leader.

5) Studying history makes me ask questions that I can’t begin to answer. Why don’t we learn from history? Why did the Latin American Revolutions fail? Why did the French Revolution spiral into chaos? Why did everyone come up with their own version of Locke’s “life, liberty, and property”? Why can’t students who’ve taken Spanish since kindergarten pronounce any Spanish names?

6) America actually is pretty lucky/blessed. In the abstract I’ve always known this to be true. But we just finished studying Latin American revolutions which were inspired by the United States. Simon Bolivar and José San Martin both had visions of a United States of South America. And both of them failed miserably. And South America has had a pretty rough go of it since then. In fact, most of the world has had a rough go of it. But our revolution worked. I know I’m over-simplifying, but we’ve had a stable form of government. The Civil War is horrible, and obviously unstable, but the bloodiest war fought in North America was in Mexico, not the United States.

7) It’s all really interesting. I keep waiting to get bored with what we study. It hasn’t happened yet. Even the major deserts of the world were fascinating. Thanks to the desert studies I knew all about the Tuareg people when they started a rebellion against the govt. of Mali this year.

To wrap up, this is a poster that I fancy for the classroom. Also, next year, I will be ratcheting up geography. It’s pretty abysmal. Image found here.

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2 thoughts on “The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

  1. Bethany,
    I just now (well, yesterday) read your new blog, which I realize isn’t very new to you. But it is new to me! I love your stories of teaching – you sound like you are an amazing teacher! I feel like the things you are teaching your 6th graders are things many (most?) high schoolers don’t even know!! Good for you! You go, girl! You must be in a very good school! We’re looking forward to seeing you at the cabin!
    Love, Aunt Karen

  2. So, I pretty much wish that I could learn history in your class. 6th grade is such a fun year!

    Although I will say, my super liberal grad school post-colonial west indies lit class brainwashed me to feel a little differently about Toussaint…

    ~Hannah

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