“History Never Repeats Itself,
But it does often Rhyme”
As one who taught U.S. History for many years (and prepared people to teach U.S. History)Mark Twain’s quote struck me as particularly relevant in terms of how to teach history. Over the years I researched whether there was any evidence that justified teaching history chronologically and came up empty. Either no one has been interested in the question or, more likely, there’s really no way to quantify how people retain facts and concepts about history. It seemed to me that students with good memories and a predisposition to learning in a concrete sequential fashion found plodding through U.S. history from 1492 to the “present” a fine way to proceed. If one agrees with Anthony Gregorc’s Learning Styles model (abstract/concrete & sequential/random, in combination), that meant only about a quarter of any group of students would benefit from proceeding in that fashion --- not to mention I personally found it mind-numbingly stultifying. If you have a room full of adolescents “history” is this week and events that occurred before their birth is not only “old” but incredibly “boring.” The challenge, then, is to present U.S. History in a fashion that meets the Learning Needs of students and engages them in the material.
When I first started teaching in 1972 a common adage related to those of us tasked with teaching U.S. History was “you better get to the Civil War by Christmas.” And, of course, if you were going to use your textbook as your curriculum that meant you needed to tear through facts, dates, and “important people” at a rather breakneck pace so that you could (at that time) reach the approximate “halfway” point in the chronology before you headed into the New Year. Even with that, most students (and teachers) would be frustrated that those courses “never got to” the late 20th century material. Here’s the problem with this entire model: it’s all about the content and the teacher. As one who loves U.S. History --- and wanted to share that passion with his students --- I began to look for ways to present the content in a more engaging manner. What I came up with may not have served the concrete sequentials as well as chronological plodding, but I do think it helped the abstract randoms, the concrete randoms, and the abstract sequentials better. And, as someone who is concrete sequential myself, I figured if I could follow my method, most of my students would be served.
One thing we do know about the way humans learn involves looking for patterns. As noted by Robert C. Barkman, PhD., in Psychology Today:
Patterns are observations organized into meaningful categories by the observer. When students seek patterns in the world around them, they see order instead of chaos, which builds confidence in their understanding of how the world works and gives them a feeling of control. (April 2, 2020)
Based on that notion, I began to look for what I thought were meaningful patterns in U.S. History that would provoke thinking and engage my students in their studies on a deeper level. If you stand back and look at U.S. History, it is not that difficult to see patterns of parallelism. For example, there is the American Revolution and the Vietnam War. A dominating World Empire fighting against an emerging, much smaller nation thousands of miles away. The Little Guys, of course, were fighting on their home turf and had a brilliant leader (who, in Vietnam’s case, had already evicted the French colonialists).
Starting with those facts, students can then begin digging for other parallels (or not!) and seriously engage in the U.S. History material.
As we examine the U.S. timeline, we can see that the 1920’s and 1960’s are rife with parallels, too: prohibition/marijuana; Jazz/rock’n’roll; flappers/women’s lib; Lindbergh/the moonwalk; etc. In the same way the Gilded Age and the “Reagan Revolution” (the late 19th and the late 20th centuries) are comparable. Moving on, the late ‘60’s & 70’s compares nicely to the early 21st century: JFK/LBJ/Nixon (civil rights/social progress, hippies/hardhats, disastrous foreign policy) and Bush/Obama/Trump. A little research leads to uncovering parallels throughout our nation’s history and makes it more relevant (and interesting?) to those involved in the study.
Given that, I cannot stress enough the current crisis we are facing regarding our democracy and the clear historic parallel too many may be ignoring. Put simply, I would point people toward studying The Beer Hall Putsch, led by Adolf Hitler on November 8-9, 1923 and the January 6th attempted coup in 2021. If you are not familiar with the Beer Hall Putsch, here’s the quick Wikipedia summary:
The Beer Hall Putsch, also known as the Munich Putsch, was a failed coup d'état by Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff and other Kampfbund leaders in Munich, Bavaria, on 8–9 November 1923, during the Weimar Republic. Approximately two thousand Nazis marched on the Feldherrnhalle, in the city center, but were confronted by a police cordon, which resulted in the deaths of 16 Nazis, four police officers, and one bystander. (After the failed coup) Hitler redirected his focus towards obtaining power through legal means rather than by revolution or force, and accordingly changed his tactics, further developing Nazi propaganda.
If you read it carefully, the parallel is chilling. And it is important to note that November 9th became a rallying point for the Nazis as they moved ahead and took power in Germany.
Der neunte Elfte (9 November, literally 'the ninth of the eleventh') became one of the most important dates on the Nazi calendar, especially following the seizure of power in 1933. Annually until the fall of Nazi Germany, the putsch would be commemorated nationwide, with the major events taking place in Munich. (Wikipedia)
Hitler’s insurrectionists were portrayed as “martyrs,” just as Trump’s are now “hostages.” And, January 6th, like November 9th is now a rallying point for anti-democratic forces intent on wresting control of the government and its power.
True patriotic citizens of this country need to take note of this rhyming history, it is not a simplistic “snowflake” fear of Trump. The threat to our democracy is real and my fear is that, like the German citizenry a century ago, we will not do enough to quell this threat. Hitler went to jail after the Beer Hall Putsch (and dictated Mein Kampf while there) and, while Trump is facing potential jail time, too, it will not be before the election in November --- and that’s the key point here. Every concerned citizen, every true patriot who cares about democracy --- and is not part of an idolatry cult --- needs to actively engage in the coming election. Volunteer, recruit voters, be active on social media, talk to people about how important it is to actively preserve our democracy.
In the late Sixties I remember being aware that I was living through an exceptional, and significant, period of U.S. History. I sincerely believe this is another of those significant moments and, as in the late-Sixties, it is important for concerned citizens to actively engage in the democratic process and preserve the nation.