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The Importance of History: Learning from the Mistakes of the Past

As George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Do you ever wonder why we study history, why learning about the past is a requirement in school? Will learning about the eighth president really make a difference in our lives? In this case, the eighth president was Martin Van Buren. Among his other accomplishments, he is one of the men responsible for creating the Democratic Party. One of the most important reasons for studying the ways of our ancestors is that history repeats itself and learning about our past mistakes helps us avoid duplicating them.

David Rubenstein, author of The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, discusses the importance of knowing our history and explains that, unfortunately, many Americans are not as knowledgeable as they should be:

“…three quarters of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. And one third of Americans cannot even name one branch of government. It also turns out that 49 out of 50 states, the majority of citizens, cannot pass – native born citizens – the basic citizenship test that naturalized citizens have to pass.”

The author thought this matter important enough that he started holding seminars about six years ago for members of Congress. The representatives, who should know the most about our history (aside from historians), are not immune to forgetting our past achievements and mistakes. Once a month, Rubenstein hosts a dinner at the Library of Congress for members, who are given the opportunity to enjoy hearing a lecture from a historian.

Late Harvard historian and philosopher George Santayana stated that people who don’t remember the past are condemned to relive it. While certain aspects of history might be desirable, such as cleaner air and the romanticized simpler times, who wants to go back to a time before electricity or indoor plumbing, when women were treated as property, disease was rampant, and even the common cold was deadly?

It’s not impossible to regress to a time when these things were common. Medieval diseases such as leprosy, which had been all but forgotten in today’s world, are now making a comeback. California is now seeing a resurgence of these leprosy and the bubonic plague. The state has a large homeless population who find it difficult to access sanitation and health care services, and these people are vulnerable to contracting and transmitting these illnesses. The homeless situation in southern California, for example, combined with the mass influx of illegal immigrants, is being considered the culprit for leprosy reappearing.

The U.S. has made great strides in eradicating diseases like as smallpox, the plague, and so on. Laws were put into place to protect us against contracting these deadly illnesses, such as mandatory immunizations for young children. Over the last few years, however, there has been an ongoing fight on behalf of parents who want to choose whether their children should receive vaccinations. Some say the injections cause other medical complications, while advocates are convinced that by not getting the vaccinations, these kids are encouraging long-gone diseases to return.

In battles, generals and commanders often look to the strategies of their predecessors as they develop their own tactics. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, oftentimes looking back at historic battles, when the underdog achieved a great victory, can provide the answers needed.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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