This blog is named for the famous quote of George Santayana, the Harvard philosopher of the late 19/early 20C, who admonished that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While most newly-declared History majors don’t know what nationalism was/is or what to think about Jefferson and slavery, they all seem to know Santayana’s quote. So much so that I have adapted it to: “those who do learn of Santayana’s quote are condemned to repeat it.”
In any event, I disagree with the quote, since it carries a whiff of “original sin” and implies that there are straightforward lessons from history, so that merely learning “History” will solve many of the problems of today. But there are two problems. First, as Mark Twain allegedly said, is that “history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” Figuring out whether “good” rhymes with “should,” “wood,” or “blood,” is not so simple; nor is figuring out the angle of historical rhymes. Second, as the 19C German philosopher G.F. Hegel said: “The only thing we can learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.” So, quick quotes and analogies wont’ cut it; without a considered approach to learning from History, Santayana was merely aspirational: we have to pay close attention to see what light history can shed.
Here’s my take: we study history because it comprises a humongous pile of examples of human behavior; much larger and, in many ways, easier to see than the world of the ‘present.’ its richness and complexity enable us to practice understanding ourselves, the choices each of us face and make as we live our lives, and to help use remember that everyone else in the world now or in the past sees the world from their own time, place, and mind. Indeed, the only “lessons” we can take away are that living is complex, difficult, and unpredictable. History thus sharpens our sense of being human; perhaps with a touch of humility and perspective about our place in society and the world.
I am fortunate to be able to teach European and world history—with forays into the history of democracy and historiography— at SF State. My biggest benefit is interaction with students, and technology now makes it easy to leverage this beyond those who are matriculated there. Perhaps you will find interest in my thoughts on history, society, the world and other topics. Perhaps you’ll even put your own two cents into the discussion. Perhaps you will pass one or two of these ideas or your criticism of them. You may even choose to sign up to take an RSS or email feed, so you don’t have to check back to see what’s new. I hope you will contribute to the discussion (not least so I can learn from your comments). In any event, just writing out my thoughts will force me to be a better thinker and writer, as well as provide an outlet for those ideas that pop into my head at 3AM (then chewed over in the light of day and grounded in a little research).
I will try to post something every week. Not on the news reports, except tangentially; rather, on how the past and present might be seen to interact, sometimes with critique, sometimes with proposals. I expect these will range from 2-3 pages and be (almost entirely) free of footnotes. Some upcoming topics include Brexit, the Electoral College, “Western” “Civilization”, pandemic statistics, global demography, public education, and the nature and uses of history. If I start delving into sports, recipes, or ranting about “he-who-shall-not-be-named,” I hope you will organize an intervention.