History repeats itself.
We all know this specific idiom. We've heard and seen it throughout our lives, recited by those who have lived in the past, including our parents and peers. When we look at history, it's hard to deny there's a pattern in how humans have acted and behaved. You could even say that, within our own lives, there are certain events and themes that repeat.
When we say history repeats itself, though, we also use it in the sense that we have a prior record to reflect on. It provides a template for us to learn from the blunders of our past selves and make better, more insightful decisions. When we have evidence that we can use to learn from and change the future for the better, it's expected that we should use it. After all, we don't want to make the same mistakes others did.
This past weekend, a friend of mine brought up what the goal of history is. I replied that it was a way for us later generations to learn from the mistakes of generations that came before us and examine the ideals of different societies and cultures. After further discussion, we arrived at the same question: Do we, as humans, actually learn from our past digressions? Or are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?
There are numerous historic examples of how we fail to learn from past mistakes.
When Hitler tried to invade Russia, he did it during the winter months. Not surprisingly, he failed. However, Napoleon had attempted the same maneuver as well; Hitler made the same disastrous strategic blunder Napoleon did.
Prior to World War I, the world had seen enough bloodshed and damage in dozens of previous wars. Then-president Woodrow Wilson said WWI was "the war to end all wars." He never would have suspected that World War II was lurking around the corner, nor the wars that have occurred through the world since then. The Vietnam War, especially, is one that still resonates today as one of America's most costly mistakes.
The mistakes aren't exclusively about wars, though. Today, we look back and see how wrong people were in discriminating and holding prejudice against different ethnicities and cultures. We quickly express disapproval of the treatment of Africans as an "inferior race" by Europeans and Americans and the heavy prejudice against women throughout the 19th and 20th century, vowing to ourselves that such unjust things will not happen again. And yet, here we are, again, still battling racism and other issues, such as gay rights.
You'd think we would have learned and spared others from the pain and damage that comes from such actions; you'd think we would have changed and learned from the past.
I'm not saying all of us are inherently bad people. What I am saying, however, is that we do have a tendency to repeat history. It's not that certain events or themes are reoccurring throughout human history. It's that we don't seem to learn as much as we should from our past mistakes – we keep repeating to fail to learn.
When we apply this to our own lives, we can establish a similar theme. We all know the feeling of cramming the night before an exam, and I know I've vowed to study earlier next time. When time comes for the next exam, though, we inadvertently find ourselves making the same mistake.
If we want to change anything, we must do more than look at the mistakes of the past. We must recognize our own antipathy and prove we are indeed different. Otherwise, we are just as bad as the past we criticize.
Jan Urbano is a senior in biological sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.