Top 5 Important History Lessons Taught by Teachers

“’Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” – Philosopher George Santayana (20th Century)

History will repeat itself if we do not study it, learn from it and take actions to prevent it.  Philosophers from George Santayana to statespeople like Winston Churchill have emphasized this truism for decades.

Teachers have an important responsibility instilling these lessons in the next generations of young people.  While simple, (“don’t repeat the mistakes from the past”) it is a lesson difficult to learn and somehow forgotten by some of our most important world leaders.

Teaching history can be one of the most dynamic classroom activities a teacher can share.  But as one teacher noted, “it’s only as exciting as the teacher is.”  Thankfully there are thousands and thousands of dynamic social studies teachers across the country who bring history to life each day.  They challenge and inspire their students with real world lessons that are often remembered decades later.

ESGI and ThinkFives polled hundreds of teachers to find out which lessons they thought were the most important to share with students.

American Civil War

American Civil War

The Civil War was truly a divisive time in American history.  It tore families apart and created divisions in the United States that still exist today. Teachers know how important it is to understand this era, draw lessons from it, and discuss where we still have failings in terms of inclusiveness and respect for all members of our society.

Among some of the lessons teachers shared:

  • The inspiration and valor of the soldiers of Gettysburg
  • Lessons about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg address
  • Learning about how soldiers lived difficult lives and sacrificed much
  • The Emancipation Proclamation and 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments
  • Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
Word War II

Word War II

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

With those words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States entered World War II, a world calamity that had already taken millions of lives and threatened to take many millions more.  It’s hard to imagine how one group of people in the 20th century could disregard human rights and embark on a campaign of unspeakable horrors.

Social Studies teachers accept not only the mission to explore the facts and tell the story, but also the moral responsibility examining the causes of these calamities and hoping to instill values in their students that will make these events unthinkable in the future. 

The lessons from World War II also highlight the stories of valor and heroism that emerged when the forces of good defeat the truly evil.

Among some of the lessons teachers shared:

  • The appeasement of the 1930’s and Germany’s invasion in Europe
  • The Holocaust and its crimes (See #2)
  • Pearl Harbor and the determination it created in the American people
  • The fall of Germany, and the origins of the Berlin Wall
  • Debating whether dropping the atomic bomb was necessary  or not
Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Another important topic for social studies teachers to address is the re-discovery of America and Christopher Columbus. What used to be simplistic activities in elementary school like creating three Columbus’ ships with bars of ivory soap, have now become much more divisive topics that require a more nuanced approach even at the earliest grade levels.

For generations, students were taught Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to discover America in 1492.  Columbus also represented an opportunity to recognize the contributions to society Italian-Americans have made and continue to make.

But Columbus also captured and enslaved Indigenous peoples. The practice of enslavement was common and legal in Europe at the time.  Some historians believe that “as governor of Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, he was a despot who kept all profits for himself and his brothers and was loathed by the colonists whose lives he controlled.” (

A fuller picture of Columbus has emerged this century.  Teachers teach these lessons believing that understanding controversies — what Columbus did, how he did it, whether we should be commemorating him — builds skills that are fundamental for understanding history and social studies.

Among some of the lessons teachers shared:

  • The courage of early explorers and their determination
  • The way Native Americans respected the Earth
  • Destruction of Native Americans
  • Which stories of Columbus are supported by facts
  • The early settlers and Pilgrims


“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”  — Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor

Elie Wiesel devoted his life to opposing indifference and believed the lessons of the Holocaust were profound and need to be told year over year.  We know that the Nazis came to power legally, they were initially supported by millions of people, and they used their power to commit  state-sponsored mass murder of millions of Jewish people, queer people, people with disabilities, and other groups persecuted by the Nazis.

Starting in 1939, the Nazi government ordered all Jewish people to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing and forced them to confined areas called ghettos. Shortly after, the Nazis constructed over 44,000 incarceration sites which included forced labor camps and eventually most inhumane concentration camps.

Albeit a sober lesson, it’s important that children of all ages receive age-appropriate exposure to this horrific historical era.

Among some of the lessons teachers shared:

  • The advent of the Holocaust in the 1930’s
  • Anne Frank, her bravery, and legacy
  • The horrors of the concentrations camps
  • Discussions on the morality of taking orders
  • People who still today deny the Holocaust


The #1 lesson identified by history teachers as the most important to discuss with students was the topic of slavery in the United States.   It’s hard to address American history without seeing the profound influence slavery had from its very inception. The economic development of many parts of our country were built on the enslavement of others.  Slavery divided the founders of the country and even found its way into our constitution with an ugly compromise.

Many founding fathers and our earliest presidents all owned slaves.  While the country’s thinking evolved on the topic of slavery after its founding and the institution was attacked by many statespeople and religious leaders of the times, it took nearly 100 years before the country finally said no more – and even then it resulted in a civil war before finally becoming illegal in the United states.

The legacies of slavery still cause issues in communities across the country and it’s important for students to understand its affect on our laws and politics. Fortunately, there is almost universal agreement that slavery was wrong, and that we must continue to address lingering effects.

Among some of the lessons teachers shared:

  • The economic factors that led to slavery
  • The contributions of early Black Americans who were not mentioned in our books
  • Interactive lessons like acting out a trial during the time of black slaves
  • The emergence of Jim Crow laws to slow integration
  • How people like Martin Luther King took a stand and changed the world

What are the most important history lessons that you believe students should be taught?


  1. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou

What do you THINK?

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