Often times, students look at their schoolwork and classes as dry and boring, or feel like the subject matter doesn’t relate to their real lives. There’s a tendency to see school as a chore to get through rather than a vital means of self-improvement.

To some extent, this is unavoidable. On the surface, a subject like Geometry doesn’t appear to have much application in the life of a teenager. And the dusty events of hundreds of years ago seem incredibly removed from anything going on today.

But our textbooks don’t just hold a bunch of test questions to be answered. There’s a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that absolutely can be applied to our world today. It simply requires a bit of critical thinking and analysis.

When we buy textbooks, we’re buying a record of the shared collective of knowledge accumulated over the centuries. And that knowledge can show us many things. Perhaps one of the most underrated things our textbooks can teach us is how to avoid the mistakes of the past.

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One lesson history especially teaches us is that certain archetypes crop up over and over again. Certain types of public figures have caused harm at various points in time, and while the exact circumstances differ from case to case, the broad strokes are the same

Here are some of the people history has warned us to be wary of.

The Obstructionist

Our history has taken many twists and turns, but when stepping back and looking at the big picture, we can see gradual and sustained progress.

More people are free and given power to dictate the course of their lives. Fewer people suffer from constant indignity and inequality. While there may be disagreement as to the finer points of morality, most would agree with the quote from the great Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But our history is full of people who oppose that slow march toward justice. Those who, for either selfish reasons or obdurate clinging to the status quo, fight against the basic and inalienable rights of the people.

In the present, it’s not always easy to discern which issues touch on those basic rights, and in what ways. A good rubric to use is considering the absolute humanity of any given citizen. Strip away any specificities, and ask yourself whether that person deserves certain general rights and privileges.

If you find someone consistently falling on the side of denying a specific person or group of people rights and privileges which would be acknowledged in that general thought exercise, this person may be an obstructionist. A person fighting against the tide of history, and someone who will be looked on as an antagonist in hindsight.

The Demagogue

Long before the widespread adoption of democracy, there have been people who have tried to gain or maintain power by appealing to ‘the people’ as a broad group. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to address the needs and wants of the majority of any group or nation. In fact, this can be a great virtue when it causes a leader to prioritize the needs of society as a whole over that of a small but powerful minority.

However, the demagogue takes this concept and twists it, perverts it into something incredibly dangerous and harmful. The demagogue seeks to channel the will of the majority, rather than responding to it. By appealing to base emotions like fear, anger and resentment, the demagogue attempts to convince people that they are being attacked, being beset and hindered by the willful actions of some enemy.

Often times, this enemy is a smaller subsection of the nation or group. The enemy acts as a rallying cry and a reason to take more and more drastic measures. And conveniently, these measures increase the personal power of the demagogue, tightening their control over the reins of government. And this is true motivation of the demagogue – to gain control.

If you see a public figure appealing to fear and anger, attempting to stoke the majority into a state of animus toward some ‘other’ of any kind, this figure has been found many times in our history. They have rarely turned out to be motivated by goodness or selflessness.

These are only a couple of the types of people our history books have warned us to beware. Throughout the years, many of the same types of threats have faced us, and we’ve tried to address those threats and problems in a variety of ways.

Many of the failures of the past come down to the same motivations: Greed, fear, selfishness, cowardice, rashness and a host of other negative traits. Often times, a ruthless desire for power and control leads to serious problems down the line.

Our textbooks have shown us both heroes and villains. Looking back on history decades or centuries after the fact, it’s easy to identify a seeming hero or villain. It’s harder to do that in the present day, when the history has yet to be written.

Maybe it’s too simple to label anyone as a hero or villain, but our history can show us what it looks like when a person is dangerous, capable of awful things. The first step to identifying those people is buy textbooks from which take in the knowledge in the first place. Only after we have learned from history can we apply it to the present.

Posted by Steven

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