Teaching a lecture class on Ukrainian history last fall, I felt a touch of the surreal. The war in Ukraine had been going on for half a year when I began. A nuclear power had attacked a state that had given up its nuclear weapons. An empire was trying to halt European integration. A tyranny was attempting to crush a neighboring democracy. On occupied territories, Russia perpetrated genocidal atrocities with clear expressions of genocidal intent.
And yet, Ukraine was fighting back. Ukrainians resisted the nuclear blackmail, scorned the vaunted empire and took risks for their democracy. At Kyiv, Kharkiv and, later, Kherson, they beat back the Russians, halting the torture, the murder and the deportation.
We were at a historical turning point. But where was the history? The television screens were full of Ukraine day in and day out, and the one thing any viewer could say with confidence was that the commentators had never studied Ukraine. I heard from my former students, now in government or in journalism, that they were glad to have taken Eastern European history. They said that they were a little less surprised than others by the war; that they had more reference points.
The contrast between the historical importance of this war and the lack of coursework in history reveals a larger problem. We know too little history. We have designed education to be about technical questions: the how of the world. And solving everyday problems is very important.
But if we deprive ourselves of history, everything is a surprise: 9/11, the financial crisis, the storming of the Capitol, the invasion of Ukraine. When we are shocked out of the everyday but have no history, we grope for reference points, and become vulnerable to people who give us easy answers. The past then becomes a realm of myth, in which those with power generate narratives most convenient to themselves. [Continue reading…]