You’ve probably heard the phrase “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” before. So what is the difference between history and the past?

What you probably don’t know is that that quote was originally written by George Santayana as, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So what’s the difference? Is there even a difference between history and the past?

Image: Bridge over a river with the water appearing it has a hole in it, reminiscent of the holes in our history that may hold ancient knowledge we're missing out on. Questioning the difference between history and the past?

Source: Wikimedia

Think of it this way, what moments are happening or will happen today that will be a part of the past or a part of history? Arguably, most of the things that we do on a daily basis aren’t history making. So what exactly then is history?

And what’s the difference between history and the past?

I think this is a particularly good question to ponder as we look toward a future that can seem uncertain and look back at history which we seem to know so well.

There’s the fantastic PBS Idea Channel with more on this fascinating little thought experiment.

This video is kind of a thinker, and I encourage you to go back and re-watch it for insights (I have watched it a few times now and find new moments popping out at me).

There are a few main points that stand out to me as critical to take a closer look at today.

First, I am struck with the idea that history is about building a tidy narrative of the past. Which, of course, begs the question, “What are we leaving out of these narratives?

In the standard history classes are often broken up into sections (usually surrounding wars or revolutions). Broadly, we jump from the Revolutionary War to the American Civil War, then find ourselves at World War I, take a quick jaunt into the Great Depression, and then back to WWII.

What happened in between those times? What was happening in other countries? How can we avoid being doomed to repeat history if we only ever formally learn about a small slice of a larger narrative?

Secondly, I think it’s important that we remember that if history is a narrative process. Somebody chooses what gets cut in the editing.

Whether or not a history intends it, an individual or a society’s biases creep into how history is written. Even though the facts of history can all be the same, how a historian chooses to interpret those facts influences how future readers see history.

As we look around today, we should remind ourselves that there is no one story when it comes to history. How one historian writes about a particular topic or event may be completely different from another.

To truly keep ourselves from being doomed to repeat the past we, in every new generation, have to be diligent about how we choose to learn about it.

Like everything, history is never black and white and the more we seek out voices different from our own that are richer and more diverse, the more we paint the past in its true colors and can grow from it.

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!


Take a fresh look at history!

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  1. Pbsideachannel. “What’s The Difference Between History and The Past?” YouTube. PBS Idea Channel, 04 May 2016. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. <>.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

CEO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and is now the CEO at Ever Widening Circles. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often root-tripping—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV