Last week, I found myself on a plane to Houston. Although I ordinarily don’t talk to strangers on airplanes, I found myself drawn into conversation with a very affable and intelligent older man. He told me he is an accountant, a successful business owner, and well-connected in Democratic politics in Denver. He was interested to learn that I’m a history professor, and said he thinks that the reason the that the republic is in a shambles is widespread historical ignorance. You know the old saying by heart, I’m sure: if only we knew history better, people would be smarter and wiser, we’d vote for smarter and more honest politicians, and together we’d all make better laws and wiser public policy decisions. (Maybe he was just a nice guy trying to make a connection to my rather abstruse line of work, which most people see as a vocation of buffs, hobbyists, and antiquarians.)
I told the man on the plane that I completely disagreed with him. Although I wish humanity learned from its mistakes, my experience of studying and writing history for the past twenty-odd years is that people never learn. It’s clear that our optimism, powers of delusion, and often simple greed overcome any wisdom we might learn from history. (You may have heard that old saw that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. I think that’s a good shorthand for what I’m getting at.) The human animal has a longer life than most other animals, but it’s still very keyed to immediate gratification rather than taking the long view. Look at Woodrow Wilson, our only American historian-turned-president–he’s hardly an advertisement for the superiority of historians’ judgment and foresight! (Can we blame it on the fact that he really had the soul of an administrator?)
The past few decades are replete with U.S. American folly that was utterly foreseeable and avoidable for anyone who had even a decent high school history education and was a casual consumer of current events. Remember the tech/dot-com bubble of the late 1990s? This time it’s different! Dow 36,000!!11!11! Remember the invasion and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan? Don’t worry: the British and Russian examples are irrelevant! Everything’s different now. Remember the real estate bubble of the mid-2000s? Forget about the balloon payment due in five years–you can just refinance or sell your $500,000 home for $750,000! Remind me again: how’d all of that work out for us?
What have we learned in the past 2,500 years or so that Herodotus didn’t already warn us about:? Hubris!
Given this evidence of humanity’s depressing credulity and willingness to ignore any lessons history might offer, what is the point of learning history, then? Is it in fact just the realm of buffs, hobbyists, and antiquarians? Are professional historians really just well-educated bar bet settlers? Maybe. But I also think that while humans are greedy and have powers of delusion much stronger than their impulses to reflect on the lessons of history, I also think that history is what sets us apart from the other animals. We need to remember as much as we clearly need to forget. Forgetting is easy and usually more comfortable, but history is what makes us human.
The work of history teachers and professors, archivists, museum experts, historic preservationists, and cultural resource managers is to preserve and remember as much of it as we can. Like Christian monks after the fall of Rome who rounded up all of the manuscripts they could and kept the light of literacy and learning alive during the barbarian invasions, we may not understand or fully appreciate what it is we’re saving or commemorating now. But it must be saved and preserved for the sake of future generations of people who may know better what to do with it and what it all means. Political leadership in the future will probably continue making the same mistakes, but the conservators of history will probably see it all coming, again and again.