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Are History and Government Classes Still Important in the Era of STEM?

A few years ago, I had a student in exasperation tell me, “Don’t apply history to current events, just teach the history!”

I can’t remember what the actual subject was that we were discussing, but it was not uncommon for me to make connections between a particular historical event and the similarities to an ongoing current event.

Just as students were in the heat of discussing the merits or demerits of whatever decision or action had been made in the past, I would bring up a particular current event for which the students immediately display the opposite reaction. Then I would ask them to discuss the similarities and differences in the two cases. Often this exercise required students to question their current stands on whatever the current event was.

As a history buff, I love history for its own sake and would study it even if there were no applicable lessons we could apply to our current lives. However, as a history teacher, I strongly believe that one of the more important reasons to teach history is for the purpose of learning from the examples set by those who came before us. Sometimes those lessons are good things that we should strive to emulate, and sometimes they are lessons of what not to do and how we can improve upon the mistakes of the past.

There has been a lot of depressing reporting in the news lately. Don’t worry, I am not going to get into politics directly regarding a particular policy or partisanship. It has gotten me thinking about our political process, how we got to this point, what dangers we may be facing, and what we can do about it.


"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” – Mark Twain

Whether you agree with philosopher George Santayana or with Mark Twain it is clear there are lessons to be learned from studying the past.

Image of the Kremlin juxaposed to the U.S. Capitol Building

Current events in Russian politics are sending a warning.

It has been a couple of years since I taught comparative government and at that time Russia was considered a “transitionary democracy.” However, even in 2018 I was questioning that designation when President Putin’s main political rival, Alexei Navalny, was suddenly disqualified as a candidate based on a revived five-year suspended conviction for embezzlement.

It is now time for the Russian presidential election once again and it is no surprise that Vladimir Putin is again running for his fifth term. Just this week it was announced that his still most outspoken rival, Alexei Navalny, died in prison.

According to AP News, the Western powers are upset by Navalny’s death and are looking into more sanctions against Putin, for whatever little good it may do. This coupled with the failed Wagner coup against Putin last summer and Wagner’s subsequent death announce indicate that Russia is returning to a totalitarian regime.

Since the ratification of the Russian Constitution in 1993, Russia struggled to develop a true democracy. Originally, the Russian president was only allowed to serve two consecutive four-year terms. Putin was elected president in 2000 and again in 2004.

After serving his last term, he became prime minister in 2008. That same year, while Putin was leading the Russian Duma, it passed an amendment, which was then ratified, to extend the presidential term from four years to six years effective with the next presidential election.

Unsurprisingly in 2012, Putin was reelected president, but now with a six-year term. He was reelected again in 2018 after his main rival as mentioned above was arrested and sent to an Artic prison.

Putin would not have been able to run for president again this year but for amendments enacted in July 2020 after opponents had only a month, instead of the usual 90-100 days, to prepare and educate the public on the contents of the amendments ahead of voting.

Additionally, voting procedures were changed to require no-minimum voter turn-out and an online-voting option.

The amendments removed the “in a row” clause regulating the maximum number of terms a president could serve and discounted previous presidential terms existing before the amendment’s passage. This effectively means that Putin can serve an additional two six-year terms as president.

If Russia’s political structure was unclear before, it should not be now. Regardless of what the Russian Constitution says, Russia is effectively a totalitarian regime.

What lessons can we learn from this failure of Russia’s democracy?

If we truly value democracy, in which voters have an actual choice between various candidates, and not simply an “election for show,” then we need to protect our two-party system, in which each party holds the other accountable. I wouldn’t be opposed to a multi-party system, and we have had effective third parties in the past, though the reality of having a viable third party anytime soon is somewhat slim given the current power of the Democrat and Republican parties today.

This means that we must encourage multiple candidates in the primaries. Choice is good, especially when it is between two or three differentiated candidates. We need to resist arbitrary party leadership appointments – this is oligarchy, not democracy.

Additionally, we need to be very careful about handing more power to our leaders from either party, whether through Congressional rule changes, constitutional amendments, changes to voting requirements or procedures, or in use of the courts to deter undesirable candidates however much we may dislike them.

As tempting as it may be to use these methods to benefit our own political parties and ideologies, we need to remember that those same methods can just as easily be used against us, or to destroy democracy entirely.

But there is still hope for American democracy.

America does have a different history than Russia and that matters. Russia has been ruled by authoritarian leaders from the formation of the Keevan and Muscovite states in the late 9th and 13th centuries, through the development of the Tsars, and the eventual rise of the USSR. That is a long history of oppression.

While the United States has only existed under our current constitution for nearly 250 years, we did experience a great deal of freedom and self-government for a further 170 years as British colonies, representing over four centuries of relative political freedom however imperfectly implemented at times.

My hope is that we can look beyond the immediate candidates this election season to protect the freedoms we have for future generations.

So, are history and government classes still important this this era of STEM focus? I hope that I have shown that they are, perhaps, more important than ever before, else we find ourselves slipping into our own totalitarian regime.

Stay vigil and have a great week!

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