History: The Original Weapon of Depth


I remember many years ago, in another time in my life, when I was playing the role of a teacher in a public high school, that an angry student, who may not have remembered to raise his hand before speaking, demanded: "Why do we have to study history? What does it matter to us what happened long ago?"

Of course, I answered that student, then, in the best way that I could. Teachers, nowadays, are always doing that: answering unexpected and sometimes belligerent questions as best they can, thinking on their feet with the threat of a classroom crisis hovering about their every word. And, of course, it is not just a matter of having an answer. Even more than that, it is a matter of knowing how to transmit that answer in a way that will connect to the student who has asked it; a matter of providing an answer that will not only reflect your own beliefs, but also engage his. While it is not my intention, here, to attempt to recreate my response to that question, on that day, the incident serves as a useful springboard for delivering the answer I would like to give today.

History. What does it matter? Why should we care about what happened long ago, faraway?

Of course, there is not only one reason. There are many. But, it seems to me, in the realm of greatest urgency, in the realm of pure survival, there is one reason that stands out in particular, and that is the fact that history is the experience of our human race. And I ask all who would doubt its importance to contemplate: what is the impact of experience upon any other endeavor in our lives?

Consider the small child who is about to pick up a poisonous snake in his hands, until an adult with experience, who has seen what such a snake can do, warns him to stay away.

Or consider the high-spirited youth about to cross a frozen lake, until he is advised by someone who knows the lake better than he does; someone who knows how thinly the ice coats it over this time of year; someone who lost a friend, who fell through the ice and drowned in this same spot thirty years before.

Consider the promising young boxer, who could one day be the champion of the world. But his manager doesn’t send him straight for the top; instead, he works his fighter slowly up the ranks, pitting him against lesser challenges, and seasoning him, because he knows that without experience, naked enthusiasm will fall short. He has seen fighters without it spend themselves too early, get overexcited for nothing and burn all their energy up without accomplishing their objective. He has seen them panic when they were hurt, or overreact, leaving themselves wide open with foolish counterattacks, instead of "covering up", "tying up", or moving on until they recovered. He has seen them suckered in by wiser foes who were playing possum, or shortening up their jab to bring them in range of a knockout punch, or throwing ineffectual left hooks, just to set up a straight right hand. In this brutal sport which symbolizes our struggles and battles in life, it is often experience which saves talent from utter ruin, and sometimes allows the weaker man to survive his weakness.

In the case of human life - in the case of our political, economic, and social choices, our efforts to inhabit the present and shape the future - it is history which is our experience, our treasure house of life-enhancing knowledge, our raw material for making our dreams come true, of protecting them from our folly.

With a firm grasp of history one does not need to be a clairvoyant. One can see where we are headed, merely by looking back in time, to patterns and events that occurred long ago, for, as they say, there is nothing new under the sun. For the master of history, everything that is "new" is "old", infused with a powerful sense of deja vu; and, in fact, every place we can go, we have already been before.

Of course, every time and place is different, and our adventure is never-ending. And yet, within everything that occurs, there is a resonance, a living trace, of something similar that went before, something that hints at its trajectory, its potential, its possible light and darkness. I see it all - all the dynamics of history - very much as I see love, which is an eternal force generating endless repetitions, no one of which, however, is exactly the same; for each pair of lovers, freshly awakened to love’s power, lights up the ancient pattern with a newness that makes love come to life - again.

There is a well-known saying, that history, not examined or understood, is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps, for this reason, we ought to take special notice of the lessons which history has to offer us: the lesson of Munich, in which it was shown that ambitious aggressors cannot be pacified by appeasement, which they take as a sign of weakness. The lesson of the Treaty of Versailles, in which it was shown that a vindictive peace settlement may only lay the seeds of future wars. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which reflects not only the tendency of all civilizations to lose their vitality and life force over time (unless some new dynamic of resuscitation can be found), but also the dire consequences of failing to bridge the gap between rich and poor in a dignified and compassionate way, for that leads to division and corruption, and breaks the unity of a land. The list is endless, and the applications to our own times, enormous.

And yet - I do not see history revered here, or even respected. Instead, I see a society with no attention span, bewitched by the moment. I see fads, trends, new technological innovations, all taking place in a vacuum of knowledge about ourselves. And I find it hard to believe. How is it that a boxing manager can be trusted to keep his promising "kid" out of the ring with the best until his young protege has developed the needed "experience" - while we, as a civilization, dare to move boldly forward, carrying with us the future of an entire planet, with so light a regard for history - for our human experience? How is it that a man may avoid going out to drive on an icy road, because of a skid and accident he suffered two winters ago, while a whole society may drive blindly out onto the death road of nations, without so much as a backward glance at the human past, to see the wrecks of all the other times and places that went that way?

History, in its most active core, is no mere accumulation of outdated facts, and petty details. It is the experience of our human race, the vital substance of life and death, the record of generations living and dying, finding treasures, losing their way, discovering paths to success, making deadly mistakes. It is a lighthouse, built by the past, to shine upon the rocks that could destroy us; to guide us, past them, into the harbor where life awaits.

In this modern day and age, in which so much is at stake, how is it, I wonder, that educators around the nation are continually ranting about the need to throw more resources into the promotion of science and math, the "keys to our future", while downplaying the absolute essentiality of solidifying our foundations of historical knowledge? To me, there is no greater danger than a myopic superpower, armed with the most advanced technology, yet uninformed by history’s depth; a technical giant without the light of experience to guide its way through the night of nations, to keep it from falling into the pits of time.

Perhaps this would be a good moment to restudy the Battle of Cannae, fought between Rome and Carthage in 216 BC, in which the tremendous power of the Roman army did not bring it victory, but rather, applied blindly and without peripheral vision, turned its forward motion, its apparent "success", into a death trap, dooming it to one of the worse battlefield disasters of all time.

Perhaps it would be a good time to consider that motion - without a clear vision of where one is going, which can only be understood by looking back towards the place from which one has come - is no guarantee of progress, at all, or even survival.

History: the experience of our human race. I say: learn it. Apply it. It is the original weapon of depth.


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