COLUMN: America has a bipolar relationship with history
Published: Monday, February 3, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 17:02
Americans are funny creatures when it comes to the study of history.
Children in the United States are brought up on tales of the honesty of Abraham Lincoln, the courage of Gen. George Washington, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the indomitable will of the Western pioneer. Much of our rich national culture is intertwined with colorful narratives from our collective past.
Yet despite our fondness for baseball-and-apple-pie narratives from days gone by, Americans are notoriously awful at history — the actual study and analysis of events and actors in the past. Though there are individual exceptions, our national culture and interpretation of the past is largely built on a masterfully exclusive selective memory.
Perhaps the best summary is that Americans are totally ahistorical, and at the same time, utterly infatuated with national mythology.
Lest you think I’m attacking young George Washington, axe-in-hand beside the felled cherry tree, let me be clear that there are some virtues to national mythology. Heroic tales exemplify the very best in a nation. Woven from the most virtuous threads of legend, national myths create cultural tapestries that not only celebrate exemplary moral courage but inspire men and women of the present to rise above base human nature and lead with wisdom and honor. C.S. Lewis reflected on the value of such tales: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
But there is a critical difference between using national mythology — stories that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and the belief that America has never lost a war, for example — as a warm and comforting source of inspiration, and using it as an actual account of the way history has transpired. American culture is, on the whole, so ahistorical that we conveniently replace entire chapters of our history with our national mythology, or what we want to believe about history. In doing so, we cheat ourselves out of the wealth of experience and wisdom that can be gleaned from a sincere study of history — both the bits we like and those we don’t.
One of the best features of representative democracy is that it allows a nation to learn from its mistakes and to avoid making the same mistake twice. That’s an incredibly valuable feedback loop. The problem, however, is that it’s very difficult to avoid repeating mistakes if you never learn about the last time the mistake was made.
In the words of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
While some of the problems and challenges of the 21st century are unique to our time, a great many have precedents — some almost identical — in history. The lessons we learned from the Prohibition Era in the 1920s could provide serious direction in our current war on drugs. The lessons we could have learned in Vietnam, and quite explicitly chose not to, are highly relevant to our current engagements in the Middle East. We are missing out on real opportunities to avert suffering and disaster by refusing to pluck the low-hanging fruit of painfully obvious lessons from history.
It isn’t necessary that every American become a history professor. But it is our national and individual responsibility to insist we learn from both the mistakes and successes of the past, as they actually happened, rather than remain passively content with substituting our national mythology for the sincere study of history.