Memories and Nations

In preparation for some upcoming guest teaching gigs at Bath and Woodstock, I spent some time leafing through some of my dog-eared stand-by history books and texts, many written by luminaries like Daniel Boorstin, Oscar Handlin, and Henry Steele Commager.  One of my all-time favorite passages can be found in the Introduction to The Cycles of American History (1986, Houghton Mifflin) by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007).

At one point, Schlesinger describes the mind-bogglingly accelerated pace of change that has occurred in the past century.  He intimates that those of us living today might not appreciate this change simply because we’ve been too busy living our daily lives right in the middle of it.  He writes:

“Humans have lived on earth for possibly 800 lifetimes, most of which they spent in caves… The last two lifetimes have seen more scientific and technological achievement than the first 798 put together.”

Supporting his point, he observes that “movable type appeared only eight lifetimes ago, industrialization in the last three lifetimes.”

He continues:  The pace of change grows ever faster. A boy who saw the Wright brothers fly at Kitty Hawk in 1903 could have watched Apollo II land on the moon in 1969. The first rockets were launched during the Second World war; today astronauts roam outer space. The first electronic computer was built in 1946; today the world rushes from the mechanical into the electronic age.

After exploring both the pace and the extent of change occurring during the past couple of lifetimes, Schlesinger turns his attention to the question: Why study history?  He writes:

The law of acceleration hurtles us into the inscrutable future.  But it cannot wipe the slate of the past.  History haunts even generations who refuse to learn history. Rhythms, patterns, continuities, drift out of time long forgotten to mold the present and to color the shape of things to come.  Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.  Expelled from individual consciousness by the rush of change, history finds its revenge by stamping the collective unconscious with habits, values, expectations, dreams.  The dialectic between past and future will continue to form our lives.

I especially love this observation:  “History, by putting crisis in perspective, supplies the antidote to every generation’s illusion that its own problems are uniquely oppressive.  Troubles impending always seem worse than troubles surmounted, but this does not prove that they really are.”

As a college undergraduate, when it came time to choose a major, I didn’t give much thought at all to the future.  I chose history because, well, I preferred giving thought to the past.  Historians like Schlesinger have always made me feel good about that choice.

In the last year of his life, Schlesinger wrote a celebrated piece in The New York Times called “Folly’s Antidote.”  In these parting words, he made the best case I’ve ever read for the study of history:

It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. “The longer you look back,” said Winston Churchill, “the farther you can look forward.”

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld