Living in History

Whether you think we are making history or repeating it, it’s safe to say we are living in a historic time. In this episode, Why It Matters asks three historians to weigh in on how to use the past to examine the present and make better choices for the future.

July 1, 2020 — 30:00 min
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Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Margaret MacMillan

Professor, University of Toronto

Annette Gordon-Reed

Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School

Show Notes

Around the world and across the political spectrum, there is consensus that we are living in a historic time. But what kind of history? Is the world drifting toward the isolationism, economic catastrophe, and retreat from democracy that characterized the 1930s? Or are the world’s current problems a prelude to the type of global cooperation that followed World War II? Three historians examine these and other examples, and offer their insights into the use and misuse of history. 


From CFR


Teaching Notes | The World: A Brief Introduction, Richard N. Haass


Could the Coronavirus Pandemic Revive International Cooperation?,” Stewart M. Patrick


Epidemics in World History, With Frank M. Snowden,” The President’s Inbox


Lessons From History Series: Learning From Past Pandemics,” Sheri L. Fink, Laurie Garrett, Julie L. Gerberding, and Jeremy Greene 


Read More


The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It,” Foreign Affairs


Historian puts the push to remove Confederate statues in context,” Harvard Gazette


Margaret MacMillan on covid-19 as a turning point in history,” Economist


What Historians Will See When They Look Back on the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020,” New York Times


1968 and 2020: Lessons From America’s Worst Year,” Atlantic


What the first world war tells us about battling coronavirus,” Financial Times


Coronavirus Recession: It Will Be a Lot Like World War II,” Bloomberg


The 1619 Project,” New York Times


Watch or Listen


American Nightmare,” Today, Explained


The 1930s,” American Experience


Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, PBS



Hello! So, If you listen to WIM you know we talk a lot about China.  Before we started today, I just wanted to let you guys know about a new infoguide from CFR fellows Joshua Kurlantzick and Yanzhong Huang. It’s called “China’s Approach to Global Governance”. It takes a deep, visually rich dive into China’s history, and its ambitious rise on the global stage. Check it out on Thanks! 

Politics 101: 40:09-40:13 Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important in our history.  

WHTV: 6:17-6:19 How they wish to be judged by history. 

Washington Post: 0:33-0:38 The stock market reached yet another all time high today in history. 

Guardian: 0:22-0:24 The longest stretch of job creation in our history. 

Richard HAASS: History is not a cookbook. It doesn't give you exact recipes to understand the present or predictive future. But what it does is give you context, it gives you comparisons, it gives you perspective. History doesn't repeat itself. But to use the old saw it does rhyme. 

Annette GORDON-REED: Things that may seem perplexing to you, have their roots in things that happened in the past. It would be as if you were trying to tell your story to someone, but you didn't know where you were born. You didn't know who your parents were. You didn't have any memories of things that had happened when you were a child. History consists of, of things in the past that have had a bearing on the present that you might wanna know. That help you explain why you're in the situation you're in, why we are in a situation in a given society.

Margaret MACMILLAN: We need perspective in history. Sometimes things that look very important at the time turn out not to be that important. And sometimes things that look very unimportant turn out to be very important. History doesn't reveal itself right away. And we need to think about it. We need to look at the evidence, we need to interpret it. 

Global News: 0:00-0:09 Now, as the COVID 19 pandemic continues to grow, so are the parallels being drawn between it and another deadly virus that struck the globe more than a century ago. 

CBS: 0:00-0:04 The pandemic of 1918. 

Al Jazeera: 0:00- 0:02 From the international monetary fund, a stark warning. 

ITV News: 0:11-0:15 It is the worst crisis since the Great Depression. 

BBC: 0:05-0:07 The Great Depression almost a century ago. 

FOX: 0:00- 0:04 Nascar is banning the confederate battle flag the ban means... 

ABC: 0:00-0:07 We move on now to the showdowns across America, protestors toppling statues and monuments of confederate leaders and slave owners.  

The things that are happening in the world right now just feel historic. And everywhere you look, there’s someone evaluating the current moment in relation to history. We’re experiencing a relentless series of world events that give a sense of things changing - perhaps even falling apart.

You’ve probably heard the saying that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. But you could also look at it this way - those who do learn from history get the opportunity to repeat the things that worked. 

I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, three historians help us understand how the past informs our present, and how it can help us make better choices for the future.

Gabrielle SIERRA: It feels like right now history is back. You know, it's been a long break for a lot of people, young people see themselves going through things that, you know, they only imagine their grandparents going through, a quarantine, a, a potential economic depression. So, what do you think history can tell us about right now, about our current moment?

MACMILLAN: I think what history can tell us about our current moment is that, you know, we are part of the human race, and we shouldn't expect ... although, I suppose we've got used to expecting that everything's going to go smoothly for us, and we don't need to look backwards. 

This is Margaret MacMillan, she's a leading historian and professor of history at Oxford University. Her books have received the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History and the Samuel Johnson Prize, among others. 

MACMILLAN: I think history reminds us that combinations of circumstances, a sudden pandemic, a sudden depression can throw all our assumptions up in the air. And I think we're going through this now, but I think what history will tell us, and it can be reassuring, is that sooner or later we do tend to get out of these things. Sooner or later the Great Depression ended, and the world got back onto a more even keel. So, we shouldn't despair, to remember that humanity has been through many crises in its long history, and has managed somehow to deal with them and move on. But I think what history can also tell us is the good ways, and bad ways of dealing with crises, and when you come out of a crisis, good ways and bad ways of learning from it. 

HAASS: Generations are often defined by a common experience that gives a cohort of people an identity. So, we talk about maybe the civil rights generation, or the Vietnam generation, or now it will probably be something about the pandemic. Before that, might be 9/11, might be Iraq. Maybe Afghanistan. Could be for some the financial crisis.

This is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign relations, and, it should be noted, my boss. But we didn’t talk to him just because of that. Richard has been on the front lines of history advising President George H W Bush, running policy planning for the State Department, and negotiating peace in Northern Ireland as a special envoy. He also has a new book out that contains a lot of history, called The World: A Brief Introduction

HAASS: For my father, who was born in 1917, it was the Depression. And he had me read a book, when I was, came of age, called the Invisible Scar. He said, "If you want to understand me and my generation, you have to read this book the Invisible Scar. Because this tells you about how all of us who went through the Depression, and in his case collected milk bottles so they would have enough to eat. In order to understand me now, you have to understand what I went through with a lot of others." And I, uh, that, that had an impression on me. 

SIERRA: So, I mean, the idea there is that learning history helps you sort of escape the bias of your own generation and go wider and understand other ones. 

HAASS: Absolutely. Learning history gives you a much broader, take I think. Because all of us, by definition, have narrower experiences. We're, limited by what we've read, what we've studied, what we've personally experienced, by our age. So you know, none of us can travel back to ancient times, much less, 50, 60, years ago. We weren't there. But what, what happened then and there might have relevance for now. What reading history gives you the opportunity to do is to get into your time machine. It's to go back and see for yourself. You can then take what you've seen through the words or pictures of others. And then that forms part of your mental construct, almost your filter to change images through which you look at, for example, the present, or some slice of the present, that you're trying to better understand. It gives you a different appreciation, a different perspective on your own life. And also it helps you better understand different generations. 

SIERRA: What periods of history have you been thinking about as you consider the current moment?

GORDON-REED: Well, this is a really interesting moment because we have all of these things together.We have tremendous partisan conflict, polarization in society. And of course, that makes me think of the 1850s before we get to the Civil War. We're hoping it's not that bad. 

This is Annette Gordon-Reed, she's professor of both law and history at Harvard, and the recipient of the Pulitzer prize. She’s best known for ground-breaking work on Thomas Jefferson that revealed his parentage of children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemmings. 

GORDON-REED: But intense polarization. You have the Spanish flu in the beginning of the 1920s. And you have the Depression. And all these things are happening together. This is strange. This is a very, very, singular moment. There are moments in history, there are these sort of punctuation points that come along and they bring about change, as we seem to be, in that moment now. So, I think I would have to combine eras. There's no one time that makes me think of all of these things together. Someone was joking on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that 2020 will be like its own discipline. I mean, historians will be able to say, "I'm a specialist in April through June." Or whatever. Because, so much has taken place in the last, you know, two or three weeks. It’s different than it was three months ago. 

We've forgotten about the coronavirus. It hasn't forgotten us. It's still there, but we've moved on to thinking now about this whole question of police and race and inequality in the United States. There are bits and pieces of different eras. And the thing that makes this different too from any other era is the existence of social media. In which people are connected in ways that even in the past eras that seem like this are very, very different. I mean, the news cycle. We used to talk it, about it being fast because of cable news, the 24 hour. It's like-

SIERRA: Right.

GORDON-REED: ... 24 seconds. I mean (laughs)-

SIERRA: (laughs)

GORDON-REED: ... 24-minute cycles. A story can be born and grow up and die in, in a matter of hours. We're in a brave new world with all of this.

SIERRA: So what do you think history can tell us about this current moment? 

HAASS: Well, it's an important question. And it's one I'm wrestling with. I recently wrote a piece for our magazine, Foreign Affairs, where I argued that what we were likely to see was not a turning point in history, but history's acceleration. That essentially all the trends that were visible before this: the worsening, say, of US-Chinese relations, the weakening of the European, project. And we can, we can go around the world. A lot of weak states, potentially failed states. I thought all of those would be present now or in the future. But in spades. Even more. That this would intensify or accelerate history. And we'll see whether I'm right. What also worries me, and I think I ended the piece with this, is the historical parallels. Where would this leave the world? And there were some people out there in the conversation saying, "Oh, this is terrible. But there's going to be a silver lining. We're all going to learn the lesson of, the futility of, uh, ignoring global challenges like pandemics or climate change or what have you and we're going to strengthen all of our global institutions." And I shrug my shoulders and go, "Maybe." Now that did happen once in modern history. Which was right after World War II. You had an extraordinary period of institution building, alliances through the World Bank, the IMF, the UN. And it set the stage for 70, 75 years of really unprecedented peace, prosperity, democratic development. 

The post WWII era was exceptional, and among historians it seems to be the go-to choice for an optimistic precedent for our current, chaotic times. Then, too, it felt like the world had fallen apart, that the old way of doing things was gone. Look, of course not everything was perfect. But the world stepped up to the plate. Led by the United States, a series of structural changes brought about increasing prosperity and relative global peace. 

MACMILLAN: We know why the second World War broke out. There's very little debate about its origins, and it broke out because of extremism. It broke out because you had highly nationalistic governments motivated by a variety of ideologies who want to extend their power, and, and conquer others. And it was a catastrophe for the world. 

But out of it came something I think much better. I mean, I think those who, who led the allies to victory in the second World War recognized that they needed to build a different sort of international order, and, and it was hoped avoid a third World War. A lot of people felt that if there was a third World War that there would be very little left of human civilization. So, they were acting I think under a tremendous sense of urgency. And what they did is try and avoid the mistakes of the 1930s. And so, Roosevelt took the lead in setting up the United Nations. So, I think we did learn, and our leaders did learn from the second World War. And in Europe you saw national leaders recognizing that Europe could not go through another World War if it was to survive in any shape or form. And so, you had European leaders from different countries extraordinarily from France and Germany, for example, coming together after the second World War and saying we need to set up some sort of supranational organization which will overcome the poisonous nationalisms, which have so nearly destroyed Europe and, and encourage us to work together. And that of course was the origins of the European Union. 

And so, I think lessons were learnt, and real change was made after the second World War. And real change was made domestically as well. I mean, a number of governments recognized that there were deep inequalities in their societies, and they had to do something about it. And so, you've got a raft of social welfare measures of free education, of support for change in society, which really made a difference. And you could see it playing out through the 1950s and 1960s. 

It can be all too easy to forget history, and to think things have always been the way they are now. In the U.S. for example, we’ve become so used to a gridlocked congress and partisan conflict, that the idea of two nations - like Germany and France - cooperating just a few years after a bloody war - seems like a fairy tale. But it can happen. And it did.

MACMILLAN: The trouble is that as great catastrophes fade into the past, we tend to forget why we wanted the changes we wanted. And we tend to forget why we thought it was so important to have international organizations, and to have domestic reform, and to try and build more equal and just societies. And that I think is a bit what's happened to us in the, in the last decades. We've forgotten why we needed some of those institutions, and perhaps we're going to remember again why we do need them. 

HAASS: It was probably the most, by far, creative period of American foreign policy in the modern era. So some were saying, "Well, that's the parallel." And I hear that and I go, "From your mouth to God's ear. But unlikely." And if you look at all the, the differences between then and now-

SIERRA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

HAASS: I'm struck more by the differences than the similarities. The only similarities we, we've come out of something terrible. That was World War II. Now it was, will be the pandemic. To me, the parallels are much more after World War I. 

The era after World War I, and particularly the Great Depression of the 1930s, shows that global crises don’t automatically lead to cooperation and improvements.

HAASS: Again you're coming out of something terrible. But you, how do you, United States, that was distracted, essentially was becoming more isolationist. You had a lot of dark forces in the world. Opposition to immigration. A lot of opposition to, to free trade. Which led to a heavy rise in protectionism. And again, I'm not saying now that the situation will inexorably lead from where it was after World War I for two decades that led us to World War II. So I'm not saying-

SIERRA: Oh good. (laughs).

HAASS: Yes. Uh, as dark as I am, I'm not that dark. But history provides a warning here. 

MACMILLAN: There was a lot of talk that perhaps democracy had failed because the democracies didn't seem to be able to cope with mass unemployment, and, and the terrific economic downturn, and nor did capitalism seem to be working. And so, I think there was a real sense that the pillars of what we felt were Western liberal societies were crumbling, and nobody knew what was going to take their place, which is why of course things like Bolshevism, the type of, of communism that, that grew up in, in Russia, that then the Soviet Union, and the various varieties of fascism, from Italian fascism to, to Nazism in Germany seemed so attractive because they seemed to be solving the problems of mass unemployment, of deep divisions in society. And so, it was a time in which there seemed to be no clear solution, but a tremendous loss of faith in existing institutions, which drove in many countries, people towards the extremes to the right and the left with really dangerous consequences. 

There are uncomfortable parallels here with our own time. The United States has retreated from several international agreements and institutions, including, potentially, the World Health Organization. The UK has left the European Union. It’s hard to look at the news and say that the world is doing a good job of solving problems together. 

SIERRA: So, the idea there is that having a strong understanding of that period might protect us now from similar temptations. 

MACMILLAN: Well, I think what that period shows is that you shouldn't go for simple solutions. I mean, leaders will come along who say, "Look, it's all very clear. I can get you all back to work. It's all gonna be fine. Don't worry. I have a solution." And that I think we now know is very dangerous indeed. I don't trust the leaders who offer very simple solutions to very complicated problems. 

SIERRA: Right. I mean, people love easy answers. 

MACMILLAN: We love easy answers and I think we're seeing it today. You know, we're seeing a proliferation of conspiracy theories, and it's a natural human instinct. You know, when something goes badly wrong, we want someone to blame, and we like to think there's a cause, because at least if you can find who's to blame, and there's a cause you have some hope of dealing with it. But it's a misguided attempt I think because you know, in something like this, the pandemic or in something like the Great Depression, there is no single cause, and there certainly is no single group to blame. And I think chasing after conspiracy theories doesn't help us think constructively about what we need to do. We shouldn't be looking for blame at this stage, we should be looking for what we can do, and how we can get out of this present situation. 

SIERRA: Do you think that democracy could be at risk once again?

MACMILLAN: It depends, I think, very much on the society, but yes, I think democracy is clearly at risk in certain countries. In Hungary, Viktor Orban, the president, has used the opportunity to give himself power to rule by decree. In Brazil, I think Bolsonaro is, is undermining democracies, is, is not using a democratic means, not, not following the rules at all. In India, I think. In Turkey I think we see the press being attacked. We see civil rights being, being abused. And so yes, I think people do use the opportunity, but in other countries I think we see democracy is actually functioning very well. We see that in Germany, Angela Merkel has absolutely managed to bring along the German people, and I think German democracy will come stronger out of it because it has actually been very successful in dealing with the epidemic. But I think around the world there, there is going to be a real sort of testing of different kinds of government. And we will have to see which come out better. But I'm confident that democracy will show itself in the long run to be capable of dealing with such challenges more effectively on the whole than authoritarian governments. 

Okay, so, we have two very different examples of what can happen when the world feels like it has come apart. In the case of the period after World War II, people came together. Huge structural changes were put into place, and things changed for the better.  In the case of the 1930s and the Great Depression, the opposite unfolded. Nations turned inward, and away from democracy, minorities were scapegoated, and catastrophe ensued. As historians grapple to understand what direction we’re headed in now, one surprising development might provide a clue: the rapid change in public opinion about racial justice in the United States.

MACMILLAN: I wouldn't have expected this a couple of years ago, but I think what's happened is possibly the pandemic, possibly the failures of, of the Trump administration to deal with it, and other issues and worries about immigration, have somehow crystallized and come together with the killing of George Floyd to make people say that there is something we really need to change about our own society. And it seems to me that there is a willingness on the part of, of Americans. I mean, there were always people who want change, but it seems to me now there's a much more widespread feeling that, you know, we really do need to make change. And I'm certainly noticing it here in the United Kingdom as well. 

SIERRA: A lot of journalists and historians of the civil rights movement have been noting that, you know, we've seen scenarios similar to this before, several times, since the beginning of the 20th century. And there's debate about whether or not this instance of unrest is any different, you know? Whether it will succeed where others failed. I mean, what do you say to the idea that history is repeating itself here? 

MACMILLAN: Well, I would say history never repeats itself entirely because things have changed, the context has changed. And I think with anything like civil rights, what tends to happen is you make progress as a society and then, and then there is backsliding or, or moving away from that progress. So it's, it's not an unbroken march towards a better society. I don't think history ever, ever works like that. But it may be too soon to tell, historians never like to try and judge their own times when things are happening right away, but my sense is that there is more widespread support for significant change in American society and in some other societies than there was in the 1960s. I mean, I think we have to remember in the 1960s, the United States was very divided about how much change it wanted. And Richard Nixon got into office in the election of 1968, partly because he talked about appealing to a silent majority who didn't like all the sorts of changes that were going on. It seems to me there is a more widespread movement which goes across, not just the cities. I mean, it's, you know, there are demonstrations in small towns. Um, there are demonstrations in places where you wouldn't expect to see them in support of George Floyd and, and demonstrations critical of the police in places you wouldn't expect to see. So it seems to me that possibly now we're seeing something that really is a democratic movement supported at the grass roots. 

GORDON-REED: Oh yes. Uh, this is, uh, a punctuation point that I was talking about. I referred to before, a moment when people kinda stop and say, "Wait a minute, we have to do things differently."

And that has been sort of a lightning fast change from the notion that you have to support the police unquestioningly. It's not like just supporting the, the police, but without question. To now saying, "Yeah, we have to, to a degree, but we also have to start thinking about the right balance between police power and citizen power." And yeah the majorities now are, are clear that Americans are ready for some different way of policing and basically determining how that, that relationship, police to citizen relationship will, will go forward. And that's new.

HAASS: Again, history doesn't necessarily repeat itself. There is the potential for change. And in areas where reform is called for you hope not only is there the potential for change, but you hope that potential is realized.

SIERRA: So, it's safe for me to just say, "We're living in a historic moment." You think I'm good on that?

HAASS: I think you're really good on that. I actually feel we are living in history. Uh, it's a phrase I like to use. I feel it domestically for the reasons we're talking about, from the pandemic to the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the scale of the unemployment. But I actually feel we're also living in history internationally. This is the Council on Foreign Relations. And I look at China's rise. I looked at the events in Europe. I look at, uh, the United States pulling back from any number of international arrangements. I've got to tell you it doesn't make me feel good. Most of history to me is a fairly depressing, uh, undertaking. And to me, we're seeing the United States, once again, move in the direction of isolationism. People are focusing on things internally, rather than externally. It may be understandable, but it's still consequential. Uh, I see the difficulty, not just the United States in the world, are having with coping with the pandemic. I see virtually no signs that the world was contending with climate change. Terrorists haven't gone away. North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles haven't gone away. Iran hasn't changed its stripes. We've got all the refugees and internally displaced. I could go on and on and it makes for quite a list and it's, it's not a happy list. So yeah, I do feel we're living history, but more than anything else, it's because of the United States, which for 70, 75 years has played this outsized role in the world, we've essentially abdicated. And it's a bad combination that you've had this reemergence of familiar foreign policy issues. You've got the emergence of new global issues, and you've got a United States that is reluctant to act. And this, this is a toxic combination. And the tragedy is here we are, after the pandemic began in Wuhan. You would think the big lesson would be, that nothing stays local for long. And this outbreak of disease in this city that very few had ever heard of would wake us up to the fact that what happens in the world matters. To coin a phrase that has something to do with this podcast. And I worry that people are not drawing the linkages.

Drawing those linkages is essential, if, say, a society wants to get better at pandemic prevention after a pandemic. But it’s also useful for individuals. If nothing else, history can make you better equipped for an argument, or able to offer up a suggestion at a key time.

HAASS: I'll give you a specific story where I actually was able to quote, unquote, use history or apply it. It was, uh, 1991. In the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was the Chief Middle East Advisor on the National Security Staff at the White House. So I was heavily involved in it. By the middle of January 1991 we had begun the counter attack. Essentially Desert Shield gave way to Desert Storm. And then towards the end of February we had transitioned from just an air war to a ground war and things were going very fast and going very well. So by late February the question came up when do we stop? What do we have to accomplish before we stop? We had our war aims, which was to liberate Kuwait. But at that point things were going so well that there were certain voices saying, "Maybe we should go on. Go on to Baghdad. Change the government and so forth." And I wrote a memo at the time. Uh, about what happened in the Korean War. In the 1950, in the Korean War, the United States, through the United Nations had gotten involved after the North Korean invasion of the south. We liberated the south. And then the question came up, under President Truman and General MacArthur, whether to stop there or not. And then the flush of tactical success, we went north of the 30th Parallel. Went up close to the Chinese border to the Yalu River and ignored warnings of what would happen, hundreds of thousands of Chinese quote, unquote volunteers, IE soldiers came in. Two years later there was a stalemate back at the 38th Parallel. We had gained nothing, but we lost another 20,000 lives. And what I wrote was a memo to President Bush, the father, about this. About the risk of expanding war aims in the middle of a war. And I essentially argued that we should think not just twice but three times before expanding war aims, we shouldn't go on to Baghdad, we didn't have the political backing for it. And here was a piece of history that said be very, very, very careful before you do that. Now I can't sit here and tell you that's what turned the president around. But, uh, at least for me, I felt really comfortable in an ability to bring history to bear on what proved to be not just an important decision, but I think subsequent history bears out was the correct decision. 

This is, of course, just one example - the U.S. has not always acted with such restraint. But, the point remains, that careful consideration of history can help slow things down, and avoid catastrophe. 

SIERRA: So, do you think that lessons from history can actually be misused? 

MACMILLAN: Oh, I think yes. You have to be careful with history. I've always thought. The pro- the problem with history and its lessons is you can basically find any lesson you want in history. And there's an awful lot of history there, and there are an awful lot of lessons. And I think unscrupulous leaders, or deluded leaders have used history to try and justify what they're doing. And it sounds good. You know, if they say to their people, "Well history tells us that, you know, such and such has always been our enemy, and therefore we have to behave in certain ways." History gives a fake veneer of authority often to very bad policies. I think the other thing where history is bad, of course, is when people remember, and remember historical grievances. You can get memories that go back, which keep distrust alive between peoples, and which can be very unproductive. 

GORDON-REED: A bad way of thinking about history is that you hear the word revision- all the time, "Well, that's "... revisionist." And it's said in a pejorative way, but all history is revising things. You look at things and you f- get new information. And that's what history is about. You're always gonna find things that change the way you think about stuff. So I would say, this disinclination to accept new stories grows out of a mistaken impression that the history that people wrote 60 years ago was right. And now you're just coming along and upsetting that and changing the story. No, you are broadening the story. You're revising it. 

SIERRA: So I know recently you've written about the recent trend of crowds tearing down statues of Confederate leaders. So I'd love to know what do you think statues and monuments say about a culture's relationship to history?

GORDON-REED: Well, it, that's a very, very good question. Because, people have been relating it to history. You know, when someone says, "You're taking down a statue, you're destroying history." Well, not really. I mean, that's not how most people learn history. We don't learn history through statues. We learn history typically in school, through our own reading and so forth. You can know about all of these people, all the statues could disappear and we would still know (laughs) about, the important figures of history. But statues do sort of send a message about a particular community's values.

And what we've been arguing about is, you know, are there some people who are unfit, or too problematic, or too divisive to be the bearer of a message? The Confederacy's announced purpose was to maintain white supremacy and African slavery. That African people, people of African descent, were meant to be enslaved. And for my values, for my belief, I don't think that that is, those are ideas that we want to promote in the public sphere. They lost the war. And there was a hope that we could move beyond that with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. We know it's been a struggle, but the ideal has been to move beyond the Confederate's conception of the way the world works.

SIERRA: So, you've taught history for a long time. You know, what are some flaws that you've seen in the way we are taught history and why it matters?

GORDON-REED: Well, I think one of the things that we do is to think of it in terms of facts and dates and things that are kind of set in stone. So the idea of the past is something that is fixed and static is problematic. And lots of things are going on at the same time, it's like a river. Different currents going different ways and teasing all of that stuff out, to me at least, is what makes history fun and exciting.

SIERRA: So you've probably graded a lot of papers. What grade would you give, you know, human society on their, uh, interpretation and learning from history?

GORDON-REED: Uh, history, I don't know. Well- I don- I'm, I'm a pretty lenient grader, uh, generally. A B, B minus something like that. I, I wouldn't fail us.

SIERRA: That's not bad.

GORDON-REED: No, that's not bad. But, you know, it's really frightening to me to think of the sort of retrenchment. People thinking you don't need history classes and, you know, it's all STEM, STEM, STEM. Which I think is very, very important, but for citizenship, for good citizenship, you need to have an understanding of history. And so, that's the only thing that I, that concerns me now is the sort of marginalizing this as a soft subject, when it is a critical subject.

MACMILLAN: History is not just something that lies there like a great dead matter in the past. It's something that weaves into our lives. And, and has created the world in which we live. And therefore, I think if we want to know more about our own world, we need to know the history. I think it can tell us that nothing bad lasts forever. Although, it may also tell us that nothing good lasts forever. And I think it can tell us that, you know, human beings are enormously resilient. I mean, you look at what we've come through, and you think of the ancestors of many of the people in the United States, what they have suffered, wherever they came from, whether they were brought as slaves from Africa, whether they came as impoverished immigrants from Europe. And you think of the challenges of living in this country, certainly, before the modern age. And people survived and managed. And I think that sort of comfort is there in history that we are resilient. 

HAASS: That's what's so good about history. There's parallels which don't necessarily give you a bottom line in how to understand something or what to recommend. But they can sure give you guidance. And, again, that's where it's a tool. I think there's a difference between being an answer and being a tool. And history is a tool.

There’s a quote about all of this that keeps popping up in my head. It’s from a short story by William Faulkner. “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” 

It can seem confusing at first,  it captures how if you understand the past - both your own past and human history - you can see how it continues to live on in everything that happens around you. 

Knowing history is an empowering thing. Societies that understand their histories well, tend to make better decisions. But it’s also a tool for us, as individual human beings, in our own lives. Having your own sense of history gives you agency - it makes it harder for other people to shape your opinions in malicious ways, or for someone to tell you that things have always been the way they are, when they haven’t.  

Decades from now, children will be reading about these years, and the decisions we make, in their own history books. Let’s not make those decisions in the dark. 

Be sure to visit for show notes and further reading recommendations from this episode. 

Want to say hi to the Why It Matters team? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And if you like the show, leave us a review! 

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria and our summer intern is Wynne Dieffenbach. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you next time!  

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