Essay 8: Why Don’t We Learn More From History?
Although we spend a good deal of time watching historical documentaries and reading, studying, and discussing history, none of those activities seem to make much of a difference in how we behave in the present. We replicate just about every behavior of those who came before.
To ignore history is to repeat it. How many times have we heard that? It’s past time we retired that refrain. We repeatedly and consistently ignore history. It makes one wonder why we even bother studying history, other than the fact that it is chock-full of fascinating stories and characters. Perhaps we have an inextinguishable DNA-coded drive to keep trying with the hope that one day, if we study enough, the light will go on and future generations will no longer repeat the ills of the past. That assumes that we haven’t yet tried hard enough, or that we aren’t clever enough to appreciate history’s lessons. One or both may be true for some, but even the most intelligent commit the crime of ignoring what came before.
Two catastrophic world wars were fought in the prior century, the second beginning only twenty-one years after the cessation of the first. Many of the same people witnessed both. The lessons of World War I, “the war to end all wars”, could not have been clearer, but they were unable to prevent World War II. In 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and got bogged down for a decade in an unwinnable war. Despite witnessing that event, after 9–11, the US became engaged in a twenty-year effort to subdue the Taliban and set Afghanistan on a new course. We know how that worked out. Here we are in the third decade of the new century and multiple wars rage on.
Teenagers take foolish risks assuming that they are unique, that the bad outcomes that have afflicted their predecessors will somehow miraculously spare them. It’s not only teenagers who are guided by unrealistic ideation. Adults are as well. The odds of an individual winning any game in a Las Vegas casino are always less than fifty percent. You might win for a night or two, but if you keep playing, over time you will assuredly lose and the casino will win. History and probability are both screaming at you to get out while the getting is good, but you probably won’t.
Bank robbers rarely escape capture. Liars are eventually revealed. Dropping out of school is most often a recipe for failure later in life. The list of actions with known negative repercussions is nearly endless. Still, generation after generation the plot is repeated.
Why do both individuals and societies repeat the sorrowful actions of the past when history is flashing a giant neon warning sign?
It’s not that we don’t learn from history. We do, but we conveniently disregard any information that might dissuade us from pursuing our own agenda. Most of us view life as a pyramid, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. The definition of the top varies. For some, the top of the pyramid might be wealth, for others power, fame, or prestige. No matter the specific goal, room at the top is limited.
It is perfectly logical that each of us will pursue a course of action that we believe has the greatest probability of advancing us to the top of the pyramid. Since getting there implies preventing others from also doing so, sometimes that involves exhibiting less than admirable behaviors. We may cheat, lie, steal, or bear false witness. For some in pursuit of the top of the pyramid, nothing is off-limits, including violence. Knowledge of what has come before is never going to slow this determined effort.
It certainly seems that there is a limited supply of just about everything important, that the pie is only so big. We compete for jobs, college admissions, spots on sports teams, and even romance. Life appears to be a competitive game right from the start. In a world where each of us believes that we must fight for our piece of the pie and that the higher we climb the larger piece we will enjoy, conflict should be expected. With a pie of fixed size, your gain is my loss. Our contentiousness should come as no surprise.
Suppose we could prove that those things we assumed to be at the top of the pyramid–money, power, fame, and prestige–are not nearly as valuable as we assume them to be. We can take it a step further. Suppose we can also demonstrate that the entire concept of a pyramid is flawed, that there is no such thing as a structure where only a minority can succeed. Suppose that what matters most is available to all equally.
Imagine what that might look like. Competition would morph from a pitched battle to cull the herd to a vehicle for the continual improvement of individuals and society. We would have every reason to replace those undesirable activities we listed above–lying, cheating, stealing, and any form of violence–with traits and actions that promote a cohesive society.
This transformation can only occur if the goals of the individual and the society coincide. What is best for you must also be best for me. Most would say that this is impossible. Didn’t we just make the case that the desires of the individual trump all else, including the lessons of history? We did, but all of that changes if we share the right common purpose.
We are almost there. Only one more topic to discuss before we are ready to uncover that common purpose. That topic is death. No need to fret. Death, like many things about our world, is not what you think.
When: May 11, 2022