Does History Really Repeat Itself? Understanding Change over Time

We’ve all heard it before. “History repeats itself!” It’s a common phrase used by people from elementary students to retirees. We love to look at our present, compare it to the past, and then focus on all of the similarities to say “we’ve seen this before.” If you’ve ever talked with a historian, though, you’re bound to hear a challenge. Historians love nuance. As we navigate the past through the evidence at hand, its complexities surface and the old-time saying begins to lose its authority. Sure, there are patterns and similarities that span time, but if we want to wrestle with the complexity of the past, we should challenge simple notions of repetition. 

The study of history is the study of change over time. When we look at the causes of events, the ascension of power, or the economic dynamics of society, we are acknowledging change. Without change, there is nothing to study. In fact, the reason we seek out similarities is because so much of the past can often feel foreign. Of course, this does not mean that there aren’t continuities throughout history. To challenge the adage “History repeats itself,” does not mean we cannot acknowledge continuities across time periods, geographic locations, or groups of people. In fact, at Thinking Nation, our historical thinking curriculum stresses the importance of recognizing these patterns in order to help us better read our own current moment so that we can be informed citizens who are equipped to strengthen our democracy.

A prime example of understanding how both change and continuity are at play when we study the past can be seen in presidential elections. As we approach the election, we are inundated with advertisements that try to point out negative qualities of each of the two main candidates. These ads can lead to further polarization and cement partisan viewpoints. This polarization can become very unhealthy in a democracy, where people refuse to work across party lines and therefore stagnate any real change from occurring. But while some people can overlook the hindrance this causes for our government to function, others can be overly alarmist in their fears that all is lost. When we look at the past, however, we can land in the middle, recognizing the ways that we have seen this polarization before.

In 1800, President John Adams ran for a second term against his friend and fellow founder, Thomas Jefferson. Yale historian, Joanne B. Freeman describes the election this way: “Nasty political mud-slinging. Campaign attacks and counterattacks. Personal insults. Outrageous newspaper invective. Dire predictions of warfare and national collapse. Innovative new forms of politicking capitalizing on a growing technology.” Of course, this sounds like current ad campaigns, but as it turns out, these strategies embodied the election of 220 years ago. The media at the time, newspapers, aligned with either the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) or the Federalists (Adams) and sought to tear the character of the opponent apart. Fears of losing all religious and moral virtue were spread if Jefferson were to win, while autocracy and loss of democracy was feared if Adams reigned victorious. Jefferson ended up winning (after tying with fellow Republican, Aaron Burr, resulting in a deadlock in the House of Representatives). Jefferson became the first non-Federalist to become President, which meant that his transition into the White House marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties. 

This story should bring us a sense of comfort. Its similarities to our current moment, fraught with “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and kindling] the animosity of one part against another” (As George Washington warned in 1796) were overcome through Constitutional means. Our Constitutional framework held up against unpredictability and bitter partisanship. We can take comfort that it will do it again next month.

Of course, there are myriad differences between our current political moment and that of 1800. We cannot simply assume that history will repeat itself and that there will not be real damage if polarization only grows. Thus, if we think historically, we can acknowledge the similarities of the past and resist shock-value scares by the media. Simultaneously, we can recognize important changes and as citizens, continue to fight for the preservation of democracy. Next week, we will dive further into what it means to recognize both continuities between past and present and change over time, but for now, let us continue to push ourselves to be a [historically] thinking nation.

Voting and the Constitution

At the beginning of this week, the deadline for registering to vote passed in a handful of states (For those of you in California, you still have until October 19th, although even if you miss that, you can register and cast a conditional ballot on November 3, election day). Lately, there has been a lot of talk about voting. I see dozens of ads that tell me to “Register to Vote!” every day. Voting is on everyone’s mind. While we could spend this time focusing on current voting issues and trends, I want to take us back to America’s founding to better understand how voting came to be such an integral aspect of our democracy.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it was equally a revolutionary document and a product of its time. We see a glimpse of its revolutionary nature in the process of electing members of the House of Representatives. Article I, which outlines the rules for Congress, states in Section 2 that these members should be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States” [emphasis mine]. To have direct elections of federal representatives was an extraordinary leap forward for global democracy and it is important to remind ourselves of how revolutionary this proposition was. “We the People” actually meant something here. Still, “the people” was a narrow group, largely excluding non-landowning white men, women, and Black Americans among other groups. This caveat reveals how just as the Constitution was revolutionary, it was shaped by its present world and perceptions.

Later on in that same Article of the Constitution, it states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” Here we see the political concept of federalism at work, that is, the separation of governing power between the national and state governments. Simply translated, this clause means that states get to decide the details of elections, including who was able to vote. Since laws at this time generally favored landowners specifically, and white men in general, most states limited voting to this group. (Interestingly, in New Jersey, many women were able to vote until 1807, when that right was revoked).

Over time, property restrictions were lifted in most states, and since the Constitution granted states the right to dictate who made up the voting populace, this meant that more people (white men) could vote. This led to “universal white male suffrage” largely dominating American electoral politics by the end of the 1820s.

It would still be about 40 more years before the federal government laid specific rules for who could vote in federal elections. Five years after the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, which stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Practically, this meant that Black men could now vote alongside white men in elections. Women were still left out of electoral politics. 

(A side note here: many people (and generations of historians) have often neglected to highlight the political lives of women before the 19th Amendment, but this does not mean that women were not politically active in the 18th and 19th centuries, it simply means that they did not vote. As with today, women were at the center of major social movements that brought real political change. So, just because women did not vote did not mean they were not political citizens, they simply exercised their political natures in more creative ways. Two great books to learn more are Mary Beth Norton’s foundational Liberty’s Daughters and Rosmarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash.

After almost a century of campaigning for suffrage, women finally were granted the right to vote by the federal government in 1920. The 19th Amendment, which solidified this right into the Constitution, stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” At least on paper, America was looking more like a full democracy, where all citizens could vote. 

Sadly, simply because a right is ingrained into the Constitution does not mean that it is freely exercised. From the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century, millions of Americans were barred from voting through roundabout means. Literacy tests and poll taxes kept thousands of black Americans and poor white Americans from voting. Many immigrants could not vote because of local laws, and crude tactics of intimidation were conducted by white supremacist groups like the KKK to keep constitutional rights from turning into political power for many Black Americans during the fateful Jim Crow era (1876-1965). Due to the persistence of Civil Rights Activists in the 1950s and 60s, some of these clearly discriminatory laws were overturned through landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).

The last major amendment on voting came in 1971. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age requirement across the states to age 18. Now, if a man was old enough to be drafted into war, they were also old enough to vote. 

Today, with talks of the importance of voting coupled with talks of voter fraud and voter suppression, understanding this history is ever more important. Countless Americans have fought for the right to vote to be ingrained in our Constitution and it is a right we should not hold too loosely. The right to vote spans race, ethnicity, sex, and perhaps most timely, partisan-alignment. Wherever one falls on any of these categories, recognizing the Constitutional work that went into giving Americans the right to vote should encourage us to proudly take part in this pivotal part of the democratic process.

Why We Must Think Historically – The Importance of Causation

How did we get here? Honestly, I’ve been asking that question a lot lately. Just one month away from the 2020 Presidential election, 2020 has been one of the wildest years on record in American history. 

In January, we watched impeachment hearings for only the 3rd time in our nation’s history. The next month, we heard of rumors of COVID’s toll in China, but we didn’t act yet. Then March happened. I remember being with the teacher I mentored on Thursday, March 12th. Before I left, I encouraged him to consider how to adapt his following unit to an online format in anticipation of a potential school closure. That next day, Friday the 13th (of all days!) was the last day students would be in seats for the rest of that school year. They still haven’t been able to attend school in person. It’s October. The pandemic has taken over 1 million lives across the globe and has upended the lives of billions throughout the world.

This summer, our country faced its past history of racial injustice directly. Our newsfeeds highlighted the names of black Americans who were unjustly killed: Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Their lives, stolen from this world all too early, put faces to the systemic injustice the United States has yet to fully grapple with. Racial tensions are so high that at the first presidential debate in 2020 (September 29), moderator, and Fox News anchor, Chris Wallace directly asked President Donald Trump to denounce white supremacy. Completely unsatisfactory to many Americans, the President responded, “Proud Boys: Stand back and stand by.” Without the clarity asked of him by Wallace, it is clear that the racial tensions that have swelled over this summer are far from subsiding.

America is divided. It’s hard to refute this, but at Thinking Nation, we believe that thinking historically can help bridge some of those divides. Of course, just as there is never one cause to a historical event, there is not a single solution to bringing peace instead of division. Still, the historical thinker is uniquely equipped to better understand how we ended up here in order to redeem the present for a better future.

A few weeks ago, I introduced 5 C’s of historical thinking and how they connect to our curriculum. Today, I want to focus on Causation. In that September 10th blog post I summed it up this way:

Causation: Simply, why did things happen the way they did? Exploring these answers is critical to analyzing the past. Historians must recognize that there are often multiple causes of and effects from any given event, development, or process.

Few disciplines are equipped to ask the question that started this blog, “How did we get here?” But history is. Historians can look at past impeachments to understand this rare political process.

Historians have analyzed past pandemics like when Influenza traveled the globe with soldiers returning to their homes as WWI ended in 1918.

They have illuminated the increasing racial and political tensions of the 1850s which finally caused the Civil War, which killed more Americans than in any other war.

Or they can trace the history of redlining and the refusal of home loans for black families, preventing them from creating the generational wealth many white American families acquired in the post WWII era. Historians can help us understand these events and the various results of those events on American life.

While history may not “repeat itself” as the adage goes, it would be naive to say that the study of the past does not help us understand our present. If nothing else, when we look at the tumultuous sea of public life right now, we can find similar glimpses in the past. These glimpses can provide both fuel for us to push for something better and comfort knowing that in some ways, we’ve been here before. This is historical thinking in action.

Just like a roller coaster is not nearly as scary if you’ve been on it before, the present can be less intimidating if we know how things happened in the past. When historical thinkers contemplate causation, they don’t simply gain a better grasp about the causes and effects of events in the past, but can use those skills to better grasp the world in which they live in. When students understand causation, they are better thinkers, and when they are better thinkers, they can be better citizens. Our historical thinking curriculum equips them for this growth journey.

The Importance of Asking Good Historical Questions

Throughout my career in history education, I have recognized one of the key attributes of a quality historian is his or her ability to ask good questions. At first, this may seem like a very surface-level observation, but the more I engaged with historians through conferences, social media, and their own research, it became clear just how integral good questions were to the discipline. As with other historical thinking skills, the ability to ask good historical questions does not come naturally. We must teach this skill to our students in order for them to critically engage with both the past and present.

The historical thinking skills that I outlined two weeks ago can serve as a strong foundation for asking good historical questions. Since history is not simply the past, but the “study and interpretation of the past” (September 3’s blog), then one cannot be simply satisfied with knowing what happened, but must probe deeper.

  • Historians ask questions of causation: What led to this event? How did event A relate to event B? What were the consequences of this person’s choice?
  • Historians ask questions of Change over time: How did religious beliefs change over time in colonial America? Why did slavery end in the western world in the 19th century?
  • Historians ask questions of contextualization: What was happening at the time of this event that influenced its outcome? Who was involved in this decision?

Like detectives hoping to understand a crime, historians uncover details and follow leads to better understand the past. This is why simple questions turn into books, and more books, and then, more books. Although simple, a question like “Why did the United States grow as a global power?” does not produce a simple answer. In fact, since the past is shaped by complex people and groups, no one can expect simple answers in the study of the past.

Unfortunately, students are often presented with one narrative of the past. Namely, whatever their textbook states. But that narrative is just one in a sea of perspectives. Students must not be satisfied with a simple narrative as it is presented to them, but must be willing to explore the past and draw their evidence-based conclusions from that exploration.

This fundamental aspect of the historical discipline is why Document Based Questions (DBQs) are at the center of our historical thinking curriculum. In these DBQs, students are presented with a series of historical documents and context and asked a complex question. Questions like: 

  1. How did the development of agriculture shape early civilizations?
  2. How did the status of women change over time in medieval and early modern Japan?
  3. How did enslaved people resist their enslavement and why is this historically significant?
  4. How did European countries justify their imperialism and colonization of Africa?
  5. Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal improve the lives of African Americans?

Questions like these force students to consider the complexity of the past and not settle for a simple narrative. Sure, complexity can be frustrating when we want a simple answer, but when we are ok living in the grey for a little while, we are more likely to be empathetic to those who we disagree with. 

In this regard, I think of the late justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the “Notorious RBG.” As we reflect on her life in light of her recent death, we can learn a lot about the beautiful outcome of being able to ask good historical questions. Justice Ginsburg had a close friendship with her ideological opposite on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia. Here, two Supreme Court justices, who drew very different conclusions on the implications of the United States Constitution, respected one another and recognized that they each came to their conclusions through rigorous conclusions about our nation’s founding document and our nation’s judicial past. Their good questions allowed them to draw evidence-based conclusions to inform our government’s legal system. Simultaneously, the complexity their questions revealed promoted a mutual respect for each other’s expertise. More simply, their acknowledgment of history’s complexity produced an intellectual humility. Our current hyper-partisan moment craves this type of humility for the sustaining of our democracy. For this reason, Thinking Nation believes that when our students think historically, they are better citizens. This path starts with asking good historical questions.

Happy Constitution Day!

After four months of enduring the hot Pennsylvania summer cooped up in a room without ventilation, delegates from 12 of the 13 American states agreed to a new Constitution for the new country. On September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, 39 delegates penned their names to the bottom of the nation’s founding document. A new government was agreed upon and now it was up to the states to ratify the document. After New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify in 1788, it was agreed that the new government would begin on March 4th, 1789.

While different groups celebrated September 17 throughout the 20th century, the federal government did not make Constitution Day official until 2004. On this day each year, federally funded educational institutions are required to provide educational programming on the U.S. Constitution. 

In many ways, the U.S. Constitution marks a break with the past. With this document, the United States became a nation founded on ideas more than common ancestry, common ethnicity, or even common history. Rather, the United States was built on ideological beliefs about the role of government and citizens and how to best ensure the success of a nation. It is because of this break with the past that the United States government is often called “the American Experiment.”

[Of course, there are many ways that the Constitution is a product of its own historical context, but we will have to dive into that another time ;)]

As with any experiment, things have not worked out perfectly. The founders unfortunately permitted slavery to live in the new republic, where it expanded at the detriment of millions of lives in the 19th century. Furthermore, women were not written into the Constitution until the 19th Amendment in 1920, over a century after it was signed. Still, the founders even recognized that there would be the need for change to the founding document in order to best live out the founding creeds; therefore, they instituted an amendment process, where the Constitution could be appropriately adapted to fit the nation’s needs.

Today marks the 233rd anniversary of the signing that took place in Philadelphia on that September day. As the nation continues to confront its past, it is critical to also engage with its founding document. Over two centuries, this document has guided the United States. Interpretations have changed, laws have been added or subtracted, and amendments have been made. Each of these aspects of the American Experiment seek to live out the creed provided in the Constitution’s preamble, “in order to form a more perfect union.”

What Does it Mean to Think Historically?

In my last post, I outlined an answer to a very simple, but by no means simplistic, question: What is history? As a review, history is not merely the past, but it is the study and interpretation of the past. Today, I want to explain what we do with history. Or how do we do history?

At Thinking Nation’s core is our belief in the importance of historical thinking skills. These are the skills that students and scholars need to properly investigate the past. Simply, historical thinking skills are the skills needed to properly interpret documents, events, and their outcomes. These skills are not natural, especially in the clickbait culture we live in. They must be taught and practiced.

A focus on historical thinking was really pioneered by Sam Wineburg with his 2001 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. From his groundbreaking work, historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke sought to distill the broad question, “What does it mean to think historically?” into an answer that could be used in K-16 classrooms. In their relatively short article, they outlined 5 key historical thinking skills, 3 of which we have explicitly adopted at Thinking Nation, although all 5 are embedded throughout our curriculum.

The 5 skills they prioritized were: Change over Time, Context, Causality, Contingency, and Complexity. A brief summary here is worthwhile.

Change Over Time (We label it as Continuity and Change over Time): The past is not static, things change over time. Similarly, certain trends and patterns reveal that “some aspects of life remain the same across time.” As an example, laws that made sense 200 years ago may not anymore. The world changes, and a historian must be aware of those changes when studying the past.

Context (We label it as Contextualization): People, documents, and events can not be properly understood without looking at the context beyond them. Time periods, geography, social norms, and a host of other things influence the past. Historians must explore the relationship with their subject and the subject’s context in order to best understand the past.

Causality (We label it as Causation): Simply, why did things happen they way they did? Exploring these answers is critical to analyzing the past. Historians must recognize that there are often multiple causes of and effect from any given event, development, or process.

Contingency: At Thinking Nation, we do not explicitly teach contingency, but its principles guide our curriculum. In fact, the use of this skill is necessary for the other skills. Historical contingency stresses that nothing that happened in the past was inevitable, rather the way history went is contingent on a host of various factors. Historians must never assume that things had to be a certain way, but must apply a critical eye to the outcomes of the past in order to understand the road to the present.

Complexity: When the above skills are implemented, one thing becomes clear—history is complex. Simplistic narratives of the past do not do the justice to the complexity in the lives of the people who lived before us. Historians must be ok with nuance, sometimes living in gray areas where the answer is not clear.

Lastly, at Thinking Nation, we also stress the Historical Thinking Skill of Comparison. This skill is helpful for middle and high school students to internalize as they study the past. Historians must identify both the similarities and the differences between the people, places, events, and ideas studied in history.

Of course, we would not stress these skills as much as we do if we believed they only had importance for studying the past. The truth is, people who can think historically are better equipped to think about the present. In a culture where hot takes are given more credence than deliberation and misinformation can spread faster than fire, historical thinkers can pause, think critically, and make evidence-based decisions to better the world around them. Our historical thinking curriculum equips students to do this.

What is History?

As a teacher, I’ve often asked this question to my students. Here are some of the answers I’ve received: “the past,” “events from the past,” “important events from the past that shaped our present,” and “things that have already happened.”

While none of these answers are completely wrong, they leave out a critical partner in history: the historian. History is not merely the past, it is the study of the past. Furthermore, the result of this study of the past is not simply the past as it happened; rather, it demonstrates an interpretation of the past. It is these two terms, study and interpretation, that best encapsulate history’s relation to the past as it was. 

While this clarification of the definition of history may seem like an unremarkable complication of the word, it is essential to communicate to students. Often, students are presented with a single textbook narrative of what happened and are left to think that history is merely the recorded past. Beyond the textbook, however, are generations of historians who have gathered and interpreted evidence from primary sources in order to make certain claims about the past. Their consistent willingness to be driven by the evidence and open to new interpretations reveals the complexity of historical study. As historian John Fea has put it, “The past never changes, but history changes all the time.”

With this understanding of history, history becomes a dynamic experience. Students do not need to simply agree with the narrative that is presented to them. They become investigators, using primary sources to construct the past as the evidence presents it. Sure, things like the dates of events and (most times) the people involved are simple facts that do not need to be interrogated with a healthy skepticism. But rather than ending the study of the past at those basic facts, students can use those details as a foundation to explore deeper questions. This is where historical thinking skills come to play, the subject of our next blog post.

When we talk about history, let us remember that it is far more than “the past.” It is the study and interpretation of the past. This study and interpretation frequently revises the story of the past based on new evidence or the viewing of that evidence with new lenses. This makes history a lively discipline, sometimes filled with conversation and consensus and other times with debate and disagreement. In any case, history builds bridges between past and present, and empowers students to make meaning of their learning. It solidifies a type of intellectual exploration that allows them to be active participants in a larger story rather than simply passive listeners of a simplified narrative.