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Ukraine and the importance of learning history

Written by Derek Monson

April 1, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing war with the Ukrainian people is a human tragedy. But amid this calamity, there are lessons that can help prevent similar tragedies in the future.

In a recent podcast, American Enterprise Institute education scholar Rick Hess and USC education scholar Pedro Noguera had a conversation that highlighted three of those lessons:  (1) Understanding history is essential to comprehending present-day events, (2) without adequate and accurate history education, current events discussions in classrooms are too little, too late, and (3) history gets tangled up with complex questions.

Knowing the past lets us understand the present

Why did Vladimir Putin choose to invade Ukraine? Why are the Ukrainians resisting the Russian invasion so fiercely? To get good answers to these questions, you must understand the past.

As Noguera says:

At a certain level if you don’t know [history and geography], you become almost illiterate. You can’t make sense of what’s going on around you. And you certainly can’t understand a war. … You can’t make sense of this simply by watching the news every now and then. You’ve really got to open a book and understand the geography and the history behind this conflict.

Hess echoes this point:

This is a limit of the current events mindset. I’m not opposed to schools wrestling with current events … that’s a good thing. But if you’ve never heard of Ukraine or Russia and then we’re going to spend a day talking about what we’re seeing, well, what we’re going to see is upsetting and painful. But I don’t know that you’ve actually learned much. You’ve empathized, which is fine. But is seems to me that schools also have to be in the learning business. And that means kids need some architecture on which to lay the video they’re seeing when they hear these terms.

Education in history becomes a key to unlock the door to understanding the current events unfolding around us.

Without adequate history education, discussion of current events fails to create understanding

An understanding of history offers students and observers of current events the necessary foundation for understanding the present. As Hess argues:

If the first time you’re hearing about Russia and Ukraine and the Cold War is when you’re having a current events conversation about the invasion that happened, in some sense schools are too late because kids don’t have any of the framing they need to make sense of it. And it feels to me as if some of our civics wars are losing this.

Making sense of the Ukrainian conflict requires an understanding of why Putin has an interest in Ukraine at all or a concern about anything that would, in his mind, justify military action. That knowledge begins in the past, not the present. And a current events discussion while the invasion is happening is inadequate to the task of giving the young, developing minds of students true understanding of both past and present. Quality history instruction must come first.

History gets tangled up with complex questions

Some would argue that teaching good history is straightforward, and in their own minds that is probably true. But what might seem straightforward at first gets complicated when looking at the variety of historical topics and issues.

For instance, how should we teach history to students in public schools? It seems a pretty straightforward question at first – a qualified history teacher instructs students in history. But answering that question gets complicated quickly. As Hess says, delving into the roles of various individuals in how we teach history in public schools:

I don’t think parents should be in the business of telling schools you can’t teach about slavery, and I don’t think legislators should be in that business. I do think it’s appropriate to say that teachers should not be promoting personal agendas, and that teachers should not be saying that ‘I think those of you who are white need to acknowledge your privilege and need to apologize to your classmates of color.’ I don’t think that’s an educator’s job. I do think it’s entirely appropriate to say ‘let’s delve deeply into Jim Crow and understand what exactly that meant day to day’ … for me there’s a difference there.

For Noguera, this is a good point to segue into the moral and ethical implications inherent in how we teach history:

We’ve talked about the kind of moral responsibility schools have for teaching ethics. Not teaching religion, but ethics – right and wrong. You can’t look at a situation like the one occurring right now in the Ukraine and not take an ethical stance, as you see civilians having their lives uprooted and dying, in many cases. And I think that adds to the challenge facing our teachers: How do we deal with the ethical dimension of teaching history?

Hess adds an additional point that is worthy of consideration. “Part of what’s tricky is that I broadly agree with what you’re saying, but I feel that none of us are entirely consistent about how we apply that standard across areas. And given that, that’s something that I think we need to wrestle with.”

From a seemingly simple question of “how should we teach history in public schools?” the answer moves into the roles of parents, educators and lawmakers in that process, the ethical angles to history instruction, and the human inability to consistently apply their ethical thinking to how we teach history. Those points introduce considerations beyond simple education, including community values, politics, ideological agendas, and philosophy.

How we teach history quickly becomes about more than just the basic act of teaching history. Such complications arise in answering many questions about history education.

Conclusion

Current events, such as the Russian war on Ukraine, regularly offer us the opportunity to reflect and gain insights into the importance of history and civics. History lets us understand the present and ensures that our discussions of current events will be substantive and fruitful. But figuring out the best way to teach history is nuanced and complicated – a problem that will not be solved quickly or through oversimplified, ideological agendas.

If we allow reflection on terrible things happening around us – not just in Ukraine – to teach us these lessons (and others that they can illuminate) then perhaps we can move forward in ways that will make it less likely that those terrible things perpetuate themselves in the future. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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