About Those 'Lessons of the Past'
By Richard Moss
Special to The Pilot
For almost 30 years, I taught American history to reasonably alert college students. Each year some bright student would ask what, exactly, was the point of studying the past.
I have the Socratic method gene, and it compels me to answer a question with a question. I usually asked what they thought the point of taking history classes was. Like clockwork, a student would recall a slow day in a high school history class when they were introduced to the ancient notion that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.
This was greeted by the students with some relief. They were glad to have this essentially philosophical question answered.
But of course, this was a pretty lousy answer. It was based on the assumption that history repeats itself, and this is hardly ever the case. History is endlessly creative, producing essentially new problems, new conditions for human ingenuity to solve.
If people merely applied the solutions that had worked before, the results were almost always disastrous. In fact, one of the reasons to study history was to see this creative process in action and to learn that the real heroes and heroines of the past were the geniuses that came up with good, workable - and essentially new - solutions to terrifying new dilemmas.
The United States today finds itself confronted not with one but several new terrifying dilemmas. The loudest and most anxious Americans put forth solutions that worked in the past on much different problems and in very different eras.
There are those, for example, who suggest that today's economic and political problems need a good dose of constitutionalism; that a return to the virtues of our 18th century Constitution will carry us to the promised land.
This a hopelessly muddled idea. One might ask: Which Constitution? The one before judicial review was invented or after? The one before the Civil War amendments or the one after?
Others believe that a large dose of government action can save the day. Again, this is hardly a new solution. If we assume (I do) that our political system is broken, then having this system to dole out billions of dollars seems foolish. It may have worked in another era, but there is little evidence that it will work today.
Our most fundamental problem is that the personal identities of most Americans are wedded to these old solutions. Any proposals that deviate from what is seen as good and familiar are not just opposed but taken as a sort of personal assault.
It is far from profound to suggest that Americans have become so personally invested in their political and economic ideologies that perceived -deviations are seen as much more frightening than they -really are.
This is our deepest and most intractable problem. Our -salvation will come when new approaches and new ideas arise to dissolve the present deadlocks. Sadly, however, the -evidence indicates that many of us will see the way out, the road to a better time, as the path to destruction.
Richard J. Moss lives in Pinehurst.
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