Learning from History from Scots Newse (Winter 99), 44.

William Urban

It is occasionally said that we do not learn from history. Every now and then someone quotes the proverb, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That is probably true. It is, alas, also true that one often learns the wrong lessons.

Getting pregnant twice, while not wanting to, is an example of the first rule. Eliminating cabbage patches is an example of the second. From the First World War we learned not to be too hasty in judging our enemies’ motives; from the Second World War we learned to stand up against aggressors; from Vietnam we learned not to get involved.

The fact is that we live in a world of uncertainties, in which we make our best guesses about a variety of potential futures. It is certainly better to have some background about a situation than to flail about wildly. Good gamblers can calculate odds, and non-gamblers know that the house always wins.

The role of history in higher education is to provide some of that background and a few rules of thumb (it goes too far perhaps to call them Laws of History). Since history puts everything in a time context, history is taught everywhere, by almost everyone. Every subject has its past, and the present state of a discipline, like that of an individual life, is to be understood as a point on a continuum from then to now to the future.

It can be comforting to know that one is part of a process, that others have faced similar trials and challenges, that many have survived and some have triumphed, and that this, too, whatever the current problem is, will pass away.

It can be sobering to know that the here and now will one day be behind us. It is sometimes necessary to be reminded to enjoy what we have, because the future is uncertain; to give thanks for what others have done so that we can enjoy the present; and to live in such a way that people in the future, people we can only vaguely imagine, will give thanks for what we will do.

Those are lessons worth learning.

Aphorisms to this point:

Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to always be a child—Cicero.

We see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants—St. Anselm.

If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him—Franklin.

If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbor, tho’ he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door—Emerson.

Reflection is an action of the mind whereby we obtain a clearer view of our relation to the things of yesterday and are able to avoid the perils that we shall not again encounter—Ambrose Bierce.

If one marries in haste, there is sometimes no leisure for repentance—anonymous.

When you are completely satisfied, remember what happens to a fat turkey—anonymous.

It is different in the South—W. Urban

For Lord Action on the value of history: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1906acton.html