February 2nd, 2010 by mrpowell2
Arguably the most famous quote about history, which even people who know little history themselves readily recognize, is George Santayana’s warning:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This often misquoted aphorism is generally dismissed by both professional historians and laymen alike because it is seemingly facile. Despite its apparent simplicity, however, this one statement of his — unlike his general philosophy, it must be said — is both precise and profound. (Truth be told, I can’t find a single other historical or philosophical tenet of Santayana’s that I agree with, but I nonetheless view this statement as intrinsically valuable.)
One element of this quote that is indispensable to its meaning, but is nonetheless often misquoted, is the word “remember.”
Often one encounters instead the modified statement, “Those who do not understand the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Naturally, also, many are prone to substitute simply the word “history,” thus yielding a common variant, “Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.”
The latter of these two unconscious substitutions is generally benign, but the switching of “understanding” for “remembering” is a serious corruption of the truth of Santayana’s insight.
People today commonly deride the memorization of historical facts as meaningless. Anyone who has rote memorized information for a high school or college history test will be susceptible to this view, because, as everyone who has done this knows, once you’ve dumped that information onto the “scantron” sheet and you walk out of that testing session, you instantly forget it. Consequently, homeschoolers and other educators take the view that what matters is only a student’s understanding of history.
The problem with this view is that understanding without memorization is just as useless as memorization without understanding. It really doesn’t matter if we understand whatever stories we hear in history class when we are exposed to them, if in the end, we don’t memorize their key elements, i.e. if we do not retain them in memory and carry them with us through our daily existence, without need for external reference.
Let me illustrate why retaining information in memory is as crucial as understanding with a couple straightforward non-historical examples.
I once understood all the basic elements of scuba diving, and after having sat through all the classes and done all the practice, I became a certified scuba diver. Then, one summer in Mexico I went for a few dives and had a great time. That was twelve years ago. I have since forgotten almost everything I learned. Now, since I can’t remember what I once clearly understood, there is no way that I could safely go diving. Similarly, having once worked as a programmer for over ten years, I understood certain systems analysis methodologies and applied them to assist my clients. As much as I recognize abstractly the need for such a methodology in designing information systems, I can no longer implement it, because I don’t remember how to.
If I wanted to go scuba diving again, I would basically have to take a diving course all over again. If I wanted to get back into programming, I would have to go back and study my old information systems textbooks. In either case, I would have to repeat all the learning I did before, because I can’t remember it.
This is the situation Americans are in today when it comes to history. How many Americans recall that the British once occupied Iraq after WWI–in a tutelary mandate to promote Western government? The United States is now in the same position, repeating history nearly a hundred years later. Does anyone remember that the British also attempted to turn tribal Afghanistan into an useful appendage to its global policies in the “great game”–another policy that America is repeating now. Nobody remembers these things. Thus we are condemned to repeat them. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, anyone should want America’s foreign policies to reflect all the relevant knowledge that can render them viable. Sadly, history does not figure in American policy-making or public discourse.
For those of us who know and remember history, the frustration isn’t just in seeing America make mistakes, it’s in seeing America make the same mistakes others made before, as another cycle of history repeats itself because we don’t bother to remember the past.