Of America’s many faults today, one of the deadliest is no doubt that she is too proud to learn from history. Actually, twenty-first-century Americans seem to fall into one of two clashing camps: those who have great respect and appreciation for American history (and tend to think all of our problems would be solved if we became more like our past) and those who think it is an unworthy, morally compromised teacher (and tend to think all of our problems will be solved as we become less like our past).
There is at least a bit of pride in both camps, I would argue. History itself can make one proud. But to honestly, freely study and learn from history is a humbling experience.
To study history – without partiality to what one might find – lays bare to the individual and nation the terrifying truth that we might all be grossly wrong about something wholly “settled” to the modern mind. The past might be laughing at us. Our brightest, most impressive, highbrow intellectualism might be brought to shame if we dared introduce it to “real history.” Even more terrifying, a willingness to learn from history stipulates a willingness to change if the lessons of history so dictate.
For these reasons, many would rather not look at history at all. Naively, they assume that humanity has reached its pinnacle and is now immune to systematic error. They assume we have somehow dodged the common pitfalls that have plagued mankind relentlessly since Eden.
They would never say such things out loud, of course. In fact, if they were introspectively honest, they might admit to a tucked away, inbred fear that these things are not so. But they do not have the humility – or the courage – to test their assumption against history.
They have staked a whole nation on unteachable pride, or what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”
Then there are those who study selectively. Those who learn just enough about history to conclude that there is nothing to be learned from history.
They teach history but do not let it teach us.
This is the story of the 1619 Project, for example. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ history-bereft reframing of America cherrypicks stories that corroborate her pre-conceived supposition. It “teaches” that modern America has no need to emulate pre-modern America in any way, and to do so, is actually problematic. In other words, we can learn from history only insofar as it confirms we should not actually learn from history.
Notice the following 1619 Project headlines:
“What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot.”
“Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer begins with policies enacted after the Civil War.”
“Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our prison system.”
“The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery.”
“Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
What do these headlines all have in common? They each come to the same conclusion: Modernity is superior; the past is inferior; therefore, we have no need to look into it any further.
Nikole Hannah-Jones selectively “studies” history she knows will lead to this conclusion and this conclusion alone. She does not let the past speak for itself.
But real history does not work that way. Real history is untamable; it stubbornly refuses to be molded to any one agenda. As famed historian Will Durant observed, real history is marked by a “troublesome duplexity.”
“History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque,” writes Durant.
This does not mean we cannot learn from history. It means we must accept the humbling fact that history says what it will whether we like it or not. If, as the 1619 Project claims, history really does confirm that America’s sugar-saturated diet does have a “barbaric history,” so be it. But this does not mean we can close off our minds to the other lessons history also teaches.
Even in this “enlightened” age, it behooves us to disavow and emulate the past. When we are only critical, we miss out on so much.
As schoolmaster, history says basically three things: In the past, mankind has been guilty of great atrocities.
In the past, mankind has also been responsible for great good.
You, modern man, are capable of both.
If we are too proud to heed these lessons we may end up on the “great atrocities” side of history and not even realize it.