The Future of the Past: The relevance of history in creating change

“The only constant in life is change.”


The Greek philosopher Heraclitus penned these words, and although it is fitting to a scholar studying women in Greco-Roman antiquity, this iconic phrase has itself remained an ironic constant since the moment it was written almost two millennia ago; a reminder to us of the constant shift our universe endures every day.

What other words of wisdom can we obtain from people, scholars, and worlds past? That is the question almost every academic has likely asked themselves at some point, yet the question is becoming ever more urgent in a contemporary world that seems hell-bent on pursuing its globalized, Technicolor future. Much like a teenager drunk on his own hormonal concoction of serotonin and youthful delusion of immortality, the people of the 21st century rarely consider the consequences of their actions, nor do they the past or its relics of much importance. It appears we are on a one-way track that seems to be constantly gaining forward momentum, without regard to the cultures, people, and history that is plowed through or crushed along the way toward our proverbial goal of a “better future.”

I feel like the one thing I have learned since becoming an anthropologist/archaeologist, contrary to and despite the words of Heraclitus, is that people, inherently at least, don’t change. We are capable of doing so, but across time and space, the beauty of the human race is in their predictability; the need to love, be loved, and make love; the desire to be free; and also the jealousy, greed, and hunger for power; these are all part of human nature, and can be tracked from the earliest societies on. Now hang in with me here – for this is where we can learn from those in our past, if we so choose to. Because we are all remarkably the same, because humans all have the same needs, dreams, desires, and impulses, we can find a whole lot of comfort and wisdom from history, and that is exactly its relevance. Why search for evidence of God or other unknown life in the universe when there is so much to be known and discovered about ourselves through the history of our own Kind? That is the relevance of history. Take comfort in the fact that others have made the same mistakes we have, but know that we shouldn’t always have to make the same mistakes to learn and grow. That is the relevance of history. Before attempting something drastic in the political sphere, those in power should read about what happened when it was tried before (as odds are, it has been). That is the relevance of history. And yet, too often it repeats itself unnecessarily.

Thus the scholars’ job of relating history to contemporary society is only becoming harder, especially in a world that values youth and innovation, and anything labeled as “last generation” or “old” is snubbed as useless or simply irrelevant. How can we make people care about the past? Or more radically, in a world of duplicity where people don’t change, yet change is constant – how can we relate this sort of scholarship and academia of the past, to contemporary social change?

I believe that as scholars, the best thing we can do is to provide parallels, and voice our knowledge and observations to the public. Constant critical rhetoric and public dissemination of information, therefore, is the only way to wake people up out of the subconscious impulse to react, rather than act with conscious purpose through knowledge of past experiences.

A good example of this is the recent major incident at a USC party off of campus. The celebratory party was full of USC students reveling in their soon-to-be status as a college graduates, and alumna of USC. ID’s were checked at the door, there were no weapons, no guns. The same was true for a party across the street. The only difference was that the former house was full of African American students, and the latter was white.

It started with a noise complaint, and shortly thereafter, 79 LAPD officers had the one house surrounded. The cops were armed with riot gear, including batons and tasers, soon to be joined by a myriad of helicopters and spotlights. At least six people were arrested. The students, who were rightfully angry at this blatant racial profiling, caught much of the excessive force and alleged police brutality on camera. There were multiple other loud parties going on at the time; USC classes had just ended and it was a period of blissful armistice between the students and their studies until finals commenced the following week. And yet the only party that was shut down, and with so much excessive resources and force by the LAPD, was the party of minorities.

This incident has caused so much outrage among the minority and white communities alike at USC that students have started a movement to promote awareness and change of such racial profiling. A segment has even been aired on NPR as of the posting of this blog, the link for which is included below.

USC students, both white and minority, passionately condemn this incident, claiming that this is an event that parallels the police brutality and racial profiling of the 1990’s, most notably of which happened to Rodney King, and sparked the LA Riots of 1993. Some students went even farther back in time, referencing the days of racial inequality of the 1960’s, arguing that little has changed in police tactics towards racial profiling African Americans and other minorities since these times. This is not the first time such an incident has happened to USC students, but this was the largest the city has seen in a while by far. Students see the ensuing conversation of racial profiling in LA as a long time coming.


The most heartbreaking, yet inspiring to me however, is the slogan the campaign has adopted, “We are SCholars, not Criminals,” (the SC an intentional reference to USC). That is the phrase students began chanting at the police officers the night the incident occurred, and again at a rally sparked by the event and held on campus Monday.

Although such an horrible incident can at first be seen as disheartening, the scholars of USC know that social change is possible through public collaboration, dissemination of the facts, and relating such an event to other events in history that have struck a similar nerve. Students have often been the catalyzers of change, but it is important to continue to do so through out our careers, whether they be in academics or not. Those of us blessed enough to have been given a higher education must use it to better contemporary, and future society, while always keeping a watchful eye on the past. For sometimes, in eras of intense social change such as now, and as exemplified above, that is often when the past is most relevant to the agenda for a better future.

NPR Segment:


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