“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
We’ve all probably heard some version of this quote before. It’s usually taken at face value as a reminder to learn from your mistakes—a sensible and not very controversial piece of advice. However, when applied on a macro-scale I believe this simple quote uncovers the root cause for a lot of the problems in our Culture today.
How do we “remember the past” today? I definitely didn’t have parents that would sit me down and tell tales of our origins and how the country came to be what it is (who does?), so my learning was done in school. I loved my experience in the American public school system, but looking back now with a wiser (and more cynical) perspective I can see some major flaws that stop us from adequately remembering the past.
Growing up, history was always taught through memorization of names, dates, people, and places. When did Columbus sail the ocean blue? The entire class screams “1492!” It was call and response, similar to how math is taught. But here lies the fundamental problem: history in so many ways is not math. 2×2=4 no matter who you are or where you are—history, on the other hand, is all shaped by perspective.
“History is written by the winners.” Another quote we grew up with but probably never thought much about. It’s painfully true though—we know there are multiple sides to every story but our history books are only filled with the perspective of who won the rights to tell it. This is why we all learned the year Columbus discovered America, but they conveniently left out the part about how he massacred Native Americans and then went so insane his crew revolted against him.
Here’s another one you’ve heard: “You learn more in defeat than in victory.” So, if we continue to see history through the lens of the winners and gloss over the difficult aspects then what do expect to truly learn? Our country was founded by a handful of men with a few great ideas, but we always forget to qualify that it was a homogenous group of literally all white males who also all happened to commit genocide on natives and owned other human beings simply because of the shade of their skin. That’s like writing a Bill Cosby biography and leaving out any mention of sexual assault.
I always like to end these things by answering the million dollar question: “Why should I care?” The answer this time is easy: do you feel OK with the state of our society today? Chances are your answer is no, so now the question is about how we fix it. Politicians and governments have had their chance to address problems that have plagued us for hundreds of years but we’ve seen that we can’t just put hope in them and expect things to get better. It’s up to us to take it on ourselves to learn about our history—not just the history of one race, but the history of all of us as a species on this planet: where we came from, how we got here today, and all the pitfalls that previous generations were victim to.
All we ask is that next time you see something wrong go search online about the origins of that problem, understand the different sides of the debate, and then create your own informed opinion on it. Then pass that knowledge onto a friend, or even better a child because they’re the ones with most at stake. Only in understanding the past can we truly appreciate today and adequately plan for the future.