WHY WE REFUSE TO LEARN FROM HISTORY
By Vincent Lyn
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So George Santayana, Harvard intellectual, whose main contribution to history was to write books no one reads any more.
“History is bunk.” So Henry Ford, high school drop-out, whose inventive genius transformed history.
Both were wrong. History is not bunk. The Founders of the United States, men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, believed that history was the most important subject for all citizens of a free republic to study.
Even those who know and remember many historical facts still repeat the mistakes of that past.
The generation of politicians and military leaders in Europe of 1914 were well-versed in history. Most were graduates of schools and universities that focused on Greek and Latin and the study of ancient and modern history. These leaders could have told you in detail how the Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC. An alliance of Greek states led by Athens went to war with an alliance of Greek states led by Sparta. The war began over a relatively insignificant event in a far off part of the Greek world. The war could have been avoided. But bungling politicians allowed it to grow into the most destructive war in Greek history.
These same 1914 politicians would allow an assassination in a far-off corner of Europe to bring the two alliances of the great powers to bungle into a war that would consume the lives of 40 million military and civilian casualties and altar forever the civilization of Europe and the world. World War 1I, a new generation of politicians, many knowing and remembering a great deal of history, would follow the same course to an even more destructive war, killing 80 million men, women and children.
The Founders of the United States believed that the purpose of studying history was to make us better, better as individuals, better as citizens of a free republic. In other words, the Founders shared the view of the classical Greek historian, Herodotus. The study of history has a moral purpose.
The words of Herodotus, the one who invented history some two thousands five hundred years ago, lost their echo as it seems:
“That the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time, and that great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown.”
The Father of history did not seem to ambition creating a new domain of academic excellence and accuracy. As it appears, he conceived history as a narrative and a morality tale for purposes of judgement and example. So, for millennia, everybody will nod approvingly, forgetting that unscientific Herodotus is still the one who introduced the very word History, and imagined its aim, the occupation of writing down the memories of the past for future generations to learn from them. This practical purpose was simple and revolutionary, a purpose of doing something good for people: in today’s wording, to make us different from all the other animals, by giving us conclusions of a wider past, allowing us to acquire and make ours the sum of what other people, previous generations, discovered in their experience; to let us learn — unlike animals — from the ancestors no more present, from former people’s mistakes and achievements. The task of the histories was clearly to avoid oblivion of wisdom hard paid, and to recount memories in such a way as to educate the living.
I must confess that for me, the real public benefit of history — and a vital benefit too — is Herodotus’ initial intention, to teach something meaningful from the past in order for us to do better next time we meet something similar.
Uh oh- I have made you mad. We do not believe this today. Oh, yes, many books about history are written. Biographies of presidents become best sellers. There are numerous television channels, devoted to history. Along with the electronic media, we are awash in historical information.
But as a society, we do not think historically. We do not use the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present and to plan for the future. If American political and business leaders thought historically, American troops would not be fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The financial crisis would not have happened. Covid-19 would not have taken hold of the world and forever changed the course of history.
The world of 2021 suffers from a fatal delusion. We believe that we are immune to the lessons — the laws — of history. We believe that our modern science and technology has lifted us above the lessons of history. However, as the American Founders understood, the lessons of history endure because human nature never changed. All the human emotions are the same today as in Egypt of the pharaohs or China in the time of Confucius: Love, hate, ambition, the lust for power, kindness, generosity, and inhumanity. The good and bad of human nature is simply poured into new vehicles created by science and technology.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency