Sometimes You Have to Look Back to Look Forward

History is our past, the present, and the creation of our future. It is what has shaped us into the people we are today. The place in which we stand right now is a result of the millions of years and millions of actions that led up to this exact moment, and the rest of our lives are to be shaped in a similar way. The effect history has on our lives is completely inevitable. We cannot pretend that what has come before us will have absolutely no effect on the choices we make every single day. And this is why we have to know our history in an unbiased way — the history that defines us as individuals, as well as the history that has created the complicated society we exist in today. Without such knowledge, we cannot hope to move forward and affect any kind of substantive change.

History is a key part of our knowledge base because it gives us a blueprint off of which we can improve and make better choices than our predecessors. It is especially important that it is taught and learned without strong biases, as that is the only way we can hope to receive the full picture.

Speaking about history, or even bringing it up as a topic of interest, is something that often elicits annoyed groans. History textbooks are dry, unexciting, and written from the point of view of the victor, lacking facts about non-Western, non-white countries and cultures. It is not exactly what people reach for in their free time. And that is understandable —  history will never be of immense interest to everyone. Expecting everyone to want to dig deep into the trenches of the past is simply too much. Having a basic understanding of the past, however, can be of massive help in making future decisions.

Here in Northern Ireland, where I am studying abroad, societal history is of the utmost importance. The bulk of the history the students learn in schools, however, is centered around England and its path to empire building, which ties in nicely with why Northern Ireland belongs to the U.K. at all. Students never had the chance to learn an unbiased version of their land and their country. Instead, Protestant Unionists who believe they must remain part of the U.K. celebrate historical events such as the Siege of Derry, in which they defended their small Protestant settlement from the dethroned Catholic British king. Catholic Nationalists, who wish to unite Ireland, remind their people of the historical struggles they had to endure against the Brits, from oppression to murders. The histories these two opposing groups rely on are not only in direct conflict but also lead to the creation of more conflict as time goes on. After all, you don’t have to look back very far to see the most violent time of conflict — the Troubles, three decades of intense violent conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, were only about 30 years ago.

How can primary and secondary schools limit students’ knowledge only to the history of England and its empire? It is not uncommon for Northern Irish students to come out of school and barely know anything about the Holocaust, a disastrous event in world history that impacted the shape of the Middle East and Europe forever. Not only that, but it is a catastrophic period that can draw serious parallels to the Troubles and that can be used to learn how to move forward and avoid such heinous violence in the future, by understanding why people were pushed to it. The students that come out of school today with limited knowledge of history are the same adults that will be impacting their society in a few years. If they don’t have the tools available to them to predict what the consequences of their actions might be, then the decisions they make will not be as informed.

Lack of historical knowledge is not limited to Northern Ireland. In fact, it has replicated itself in so many other parts of the world. Take a look at Italy — before World War II, Italy was the first country to elect a fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was elected because people were desperate for their economy to be revived and their living conditions to improve, which Mussolini promised. While some argue that he did improve the country, anyone who has any understanding of world and European history will know that his accomplishments were far outshadowed by his failures, especially as Adolf Hitler stood by his side in 1930s and 40s.

This past has created the Italy of today. In the country’s most recent election, in May 2018, Lega Nord, the party that was voted in, can be described as a pseudo-fascist political party. Much of the historical knowledge held by the voters was focused on the wins of Mussolini rather than structuring a full picture of the country he was running. Lega’s speeches often cite Mussolini’s ‘great Italy’, and their party leader has even gone on the record calling for an ethnic cleansing of any non-Italian in Italian streets.

Being Italian and having voted in these elections, I look at what my country has produced and am baffled by it. Initially, I wondered whether anyone had even bothered learning from history. I now realize that voters may not even have fully understood what that history meant. Many Italians understand the pretty side of fascist Italy, in which all the trains ran on time. What is overlooked is the pain and suffering so many endured during this time, or just how many lined the streets to watch Mussolini’s head be paraded on a bloody stick. This history is what people need to understand in order to make the best decisions possible for their future.

When I was quite young, I heard the phrase, “You must learn from history before it repeats itself.” Since then, I have seen it proven true time and time again. People do not want to sit and discuss something that happened in a forgotten past world because it may seem irrelevant, or maybe just plain boring. They want the quick facts that help them pass the big test, but this often comes with strong Western biases and tales from the point of view of the victor. But we have to destroy these beliefs to make improvements in our future because although tomorrow is uncertain, we can make decisions today to not lead us down a road we have already walked. With the knowledge of our ancestor’s mistakes, we have an obligation to do better than them.

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