Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“The Peril of Ignoring History”
August 22, 2016
“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction,
drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
Edmund Burke (1729-1797)
History is not a dusty record of the past. The study of it provides a means by which we improve the future – understanding that which our forebears did well and what they did poorly. We cannot return to the past, but we should not run from it. The past helped form us, individually, as a people and as a nation.
Albert Einstein wrote about education, that it is “…the training of the mind to think.” Living in a free and democratic country, with “God-given” natural rights, it is our duty to know and understand those rights – how and why they were created – and then pass them on. In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell explains his need to run: “[God] made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” We have similar obligations.
For most of his time on earth man has been ruled by men. The concept of men being governed by laws is rare and relatively new – something that is true for the United States and other democracies, an idea that can be traced to the Magna Carta. As reported by the 2016 Freedom House report, only 13% of the world’s population live in democracies. And, according to the same source, for the 10th year in a row global freedom declined. Do American high schoolers recognize the significance of that report – how fortunate they are and how fragile is liberty? In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education suggested programs to address this lack of knowledge. Yet fifteen years later test results conducted by National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed that only 13% of high school seniors were proficient in American history. H.G. Wells wrote that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. It is, if one believes that liberty is essential to a free life. Keep in mind, its loss leads to darkness and totalitarianism. A democracy functions when the electorate is educated. Authoritarianism thrives when ignorance predominates.
To understand those who came before us and to appreciate the rarity and vulnerability of our liberties, we must know something of the era in which those who formed our nation lived. That requires an understanding of the times. In applying 21st Century standards to 18th and 19th Century values, we can trivially pursue all that was wrong with those who helped mold our culture, society and country, but, in doing so we show ignorance. Looked at that way, why would we honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Elihu Yale, Leland Stanford, James Duke, Woodrow Wilson or John C. Calhoun? None of these people conformed solely to the values we cherish today, yet all of them helped provide institutions we esteem. We can fault all eight men. The first three were slave holders. Elihu Yale was an imperialist; Leland Stanford exploited Chinese workers; James Duke made his fortune in tobacco; Woodrow Wilson believed in the superiority of the White Race, and John C. Calhoun was a slave owner and defender of slave owners.
But George Washington guided the American colonies to freedom against the British, and served as our first President. In authoring the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote of individual liberty. James Madison co-authored the Federalist Papers, which were instrumental in getting the Constitution approved by States’ legislatures. Messrs Yale, Stanford and Duke were philanthropists who provided the funds to start three of America’s greatest universities. In his textbook The State, Woodrow Wilson advocated the use of government to allay social ills and to advance society’s welfare. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian and Yale graduate who died ten years before the Civil War broke out, did defend slavery, but he was also an advocate for minority rights. Additionally, he served as Vice President for two distinctively different Presidents – John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Of these men, we don’t have to excuse their defects to admire their positive contributions.
It has become popular on campuses to trash benefactors without considering the ideas they espoused within the context of their time. Students at Princeton have railed against the “racist” Woodrow Wilson. Those at Amherst have belittled the “bigot” Lord Jeffrey Amherst for allegedly giving Small Pox-infested blankets to native American Indians. Students at Yale want to change the name of Calhoun College. Following marches in Ferguson and the creation of the Black Lives Movement, protesters at the University of Missouri caused the president to resign. The Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stout recently e-mailed students about the repositioning of two paintings depicting American Indians: “…a university needs to encourage a free flow of ideas…as long as we don’t foist those ideas on unaware or unwilling recipients.” The word “man” has been removed from the lexicon at Princeton. Complaints of racism and acts of micro-aggression have caused student protests at Harvard, Oberlin, Brown and other colleges. Silliness reigns.
Throughout our history student movements have been instrumental in hastening social change and behavior. One has only to look back to the civil and women rights movements of the 1960s, or the anti-Vietnam War protests to appreciate the effect they can have. But in those days – fifty years ago – students were advocating for the right to speak and be heard. Now they demonstrate to protest voices and icons that make them uncomfortable. Universities should be forums for debate, to discuss ideas, not safe places for those whose feelings have been hurt. Administrations should not give in to students at the first moment of controversy. As political correctness gathers, commonsense dissipates?
Is there a universal code of behavior? If there is (and I believe there is), and we see it being violated, shouldn’t we attempt to correct it? Should not a college president hold onto universal morals, not simply those that are au courant? Do we, as a free people, have a responsibility to encourage freedom in other countries? Is democracy exportable? It has become common to claim we have no right to interfere in the affairs of other nations. We have been conditioned by events in Vietnam and the Middle East. But isn’t that what we did in Japan and Germany after the Second World War, and in South Korea after the Korean Conflict? Do we not still have troops in their countries? Are not their people better off for our having given not only our blood and treasure, but also for having instructed them on the merits of freedom and democracy? Were Germans who murdered six million Jews, or Japanese who brutalized their captives less barbaric than ISIS today? If our enemies of 75 years ago could be redeemed, why not Iraqis today?
Political correctness, as endorsed by Washington, reminds one of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. To be afraid to connect radical Islam with terror, or to be fearful of freely investigating black-on-black crimes imperils those one claims to want to help. The first is not necessarily xenophobic and the second is not definitively bigotry. For Americans to accept unquestioningly the gradual assimilation of power by the President through use of executive orders, and the concomitant emasculation of Congress’ authority, speaks to a failure to understand our history, its institutions and the merits of liberty. It is easier to do an apology tour for a previous administration’s foreign policies and to blame police, than to explain the historical significance of liberty, or to ask the question: Why have black-on-black crimes proliferated?
The study of history allows us to better understand the world and its problems, and to seek possible solutions – to put things in perspective. Education is the gateway through which we march toward freedom. There is a gate-less fence that encircles places like China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. We cannot let that happen here. We must not let our children be ignorant of their and their country’s history. She or he who lets open the door of knowledge furthers freedom. He or she who does not sanctions servitude.