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History's Lessons (#404)
History should be a tool for empowerment and betterment, not confinement
We’ve all heard the adage, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” History serves as a powerful teacher, offering insights into what has worked and what hasn’t in the past, and providing us with the tools to better ourselves and our society.
At the same time, it is best to use our historical knowledge to inform our present actions and shape a better future, rather than condemning us to dwell in the past or obsess over history’s narratives. Great leaders use the past as a teacher, but they are quick to pivot to a constructive vision for the present and future.
In recent years, many people have sounded the alarm about history’s applications in our education system and professional settings. Many of those concerns have felt more relevant this past month in the wake of violent rhetoric and actual violence on college campuses and in other public spaces. Though it can be difficult to see in real time, much of the behavior that’s occurred both online and in the real world stems from the application of historical content.
Young people are increasingly exposed to narratives that define people solely based on their historical backgrounds—both in the classroom and on social media. This framework uses historical events such as discrimination, violence, power struggles and abuse of our social system to divide the world into two binary groups—oppressors and oppressed.
Yes, there are groups of people who have historically enjoyed much more privilege than others, and still do to this day. But there is a difference between learning from and raising awareness about the ways in which our society has struggled with inequity and oppression and viewing everything that happens today through the lens of settling historic debts.
When we obsess over history—particularly the history of oppression—this can leave us trapped by the past, as if history plays a greater role than our character and actions in determining who we are and what we can become. This in turn creates a victim mindset, which disempowers individuals, stripping them of their agency and their belief in the possibility of change. In some cases, it can also lead to the encouragement of hatred and violence toward people based on the actions of their historical predecessors.
Needless to say, this application of history is damaging to a healthy society. We will struggle to maintain a healthy social discourse if we apply rules that say some people are held accountable for their actions of the present day while others are excused based on things that happened before they were born.
History is filled with narratives of oppression and injustice. However, it is also filled with stories of resilience, innovation, and progress against all odds, as well as cases where people defied or rose above societal norms to make huge contributions to society, and are remembered for those achievements today.
We cannot forget this side of humanity’s story. History should be a tool for empowerment and betterment, not confinement.
The current educational approach has built a generation that is quick to express outrage but lacks the empathy and practical skills to address real-world issues that are impacting lives and livelihoods. We are at risk of raising a generation of critics and firebrands, rather than problem solvers, entrepreneurs and innovators.
Our educational principles should foster a mindset that is optimistic, grateful, and empowered. A mindset that recognizes the complexity of history but doesn’t seek to define everyone by it. A mindset that sees the potential for positive change and offers the agency to contribute to it.
In that vein, I have heard from and personally met so many people who have overcome incredible odds to rise to the top of their fields. What they all have in common is that they felt fortunate and grateful, rather than aggrieved. They mostly focused on what they could control and didn’t fixate on the historical odds against them.
This mindset requires a shift in how we approach history. It requires moving away from narratives that trap individuals in victimhood and towards narratives that make people aware of history’s lessons but empower them to solve the problems of the future.
As we reflect on the role of history in our lives and our leadership, let’s learn from the past without being held captive by it or having it define who we are or what we may become.
Quote of The Week
"The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence; the past is a place of learning, not a place of living." - Roy T. Bennett
If you are interested in a deeper dive into this subject, please check out my newest article, We Need A Campus Overhaul, which details the events on college campuses over the past several weeks and the urgent need to make changes to our current higher education principles.
Have a great weekend!