Welcoming the New Year by Reflecting on the Past

Happy New Year! 2021 could not have come soon enough. 

I do, unfortunately, have to be the bearer of bad news. Simply because the calendar changes does not mean that the problems that encompassed 2020 just completely end. Realistically, we must remember 2020 in order to make 2021 a better year. Yes, like any historian out there will tell you, here’s my reminder: we must reflect on the old in order to usher in the new.

As a teacher, I would make a bold claim to my students (that I’m sure would work for any subject with an educator passionate about their discipline, but it was still fun). I would tell them that history is everywhere in your life. You cannot escape it and you use it every day to make your own decisions without even knowing it. Trying to make the importance of history that much more real to them I told them to challenge me. They could give me any aspect/event/circumstance in their lives, and I would tell them how history is an integral part of whatever it is they shared. I would get a slew of answers. “My dog died.” “I take the bus home from school.” “My best friend’s name is _____.” “I’m an only child.” “I have 7 brothers and sisters.” “I love soccer.” and they continued. Each of my responses could fit into just a handful of categories: precedent, heritage, past research, and contextualization. Over time, the students who caught on would tell the more persistent students to stop trying. “Mr. Cote is obviously going to find a way to connect it to history,” they would say. History had won. Just like a mathematician can find numbers wherever they look, a historian sees the past in everything. As the American Historical Association’s Executive Director, James Grossman always reminds us: #everythinghasahistory.

Since everything has a history and knowing that history can better inform our present decisions, we must have an eye to the past if we want to make worthy New Year’s Resolutions. We have to look backward if we want to move forward. We have to reflect on where we’ve been if we want to see where we are going more clearly. 

One of my favorite units to teach my 8th graders was on The Civil War. We would read the Graphic History Battle Lines, co-authored by historian Ari Kelman and graphic artist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. In the last scene of the book, the authors leave the readers with a similar impression of the importance of the past. A train operator sits in the caboose and tells the young worker next to him, “Nine out of ten people say the engine’s the most important part of the train. Truth is, It’s the hearse that matters most. We’re the ones who watch the train. It’s only us who can tell if she’s missed a switch. Or has a mind to jump track. And we ain’t so busy stoking the fire, trying to make time, that we can’t take a moment to look out the back. If only to mark where it is we’re coming from.”

As we move forward into a new year, don’t be too busy trying to “stoke the fire” and move forward that you forget to look back. We cannot celebrate what’s to come until we’ve pondered what’s come before.