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A Reflection: What History Actually Teaches Us

I used to hate history. I thought that all it was was a recitation of facts that didn’t concern me. And one of the reasons why we do history — I was told — was so we could learn from it. But then I thought: why is it of value when we seem to have stopped learning and watch as history repeat itself; sometimes us humans are even the cause of its repetition. After all, history is dictated by people’s actions and we’re the ones that allow for such actions. That was what I thought when I was in middle school, where I didn’t feel like my thinking was challenged and where history class was a chore of listening to someone rattle of facts from a textbook.  

But now as a junior in high school, I’ve learned more from history than I have from any other subject. And I can say that I love history and I’ve realized the value that it has and that it isn’t just about the past, but the present as well. How I got to this point was through being challenged in history class. Class wasn’t just about facts and chronological events anymore, it was about questioning whether history was accurate and if there is another perspective or another “side” to history. 

For example, feminism is one of the most prominent movements in the world right now. And when we look back at history we often look at it with condescendence or disdain because we deem it as non-progressive compared to our present day situation. But what we often neglect is to look at it from a historical perspective and not a presentist lens. 

Most recently, I learned about female empowerment in World War II, especially in America. That was the time when some of the most iconic female empowerment symbols were born, women like Rosie the Riveter and Wonder Woman. But we often ignore certain inconvenient facts about them, like how Wonder Woman was sexualized, and her powers would be annulled under a male captive, or how songs about Rosie the Riveter had to state that Rosie had a boyfriend. 

Amidst all these empowering symbols, pin up girls also became popular, something that is generally seen as feeding into the stereotypical image of women as sexual objects for men to look at. But looking at it from another side, we often don’t see that pin up girls represented the first time that women were actually involved in the war efforts instead of staying at home doing domestic chores. 

A Reflection: What History Actually Teaches Us

Source: Wikipedia

Another example of an “alternative side” to history is the Great Depression, we often see it as one of the worst economic recessions to ever happen, if not the worst. And statistically that is true. Mainstream culture and the more “popular side” of history would tell you the same as well. But when you look at different sources, there’s an argument that can be made: it was only bad for some, nothing changed for others, and some even benefited from it. So the question is: was the Great Depression as bad as it is portrayed to be? And if so, do we often portray history as worse or better than it actually was in order victimize ourselves and glorify our triumphs? How accurate is the version of history that is most widely deemed to be true or an accurate depiction of the time?

These question will never have a straight answer, and historians have spent decades debating over them and still not come to a consensus. I think questions like that are of value because they prompt you to think from multiple perspectives; they encourage you to never settle for a certain answer because it’s widespread or mostly agreed upon. 

What I’m trying to get at here is that if we think about history (or the history that we are familiar with) as just one side of the story, history becomes so much more than just mere facts. It becomes something that we can actually learn from and what I found genuinely changed the way I look at things. I learned that everything we know or will know is only one side of the story and, because of that, our job as intellectual beings is to challenge that one side we are so familiar or even comfortable with in order to fully understand with what we’re grappling. Most of the time, there is no answer because what the “right” side of the story is simply depends on the perspective you look at it from and what the current and past context is and was. 

A Reflection: What History Actually Teaches Us

Image Source: Changing Newsroom

So what history ultimately taught me is to never stop questioning, never settle for just one side because it’s the most widely believed or is deemed as factual, because once you start questioning, it almost becomes an instinct that follows you wherever you go. I can guarantee that you will come back with something new every time. 

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A Reflection: What History Actually Teaches Us