Friday, May 18, 2007

Speaking of History

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past,
but by the responsibility for our future.”
George Bernard Shaw

On May 17, 2007, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush held a final joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden. Blair had announced he would resign his position effective June 27, and the Labour Party had subsequently selected the current Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) Gordon Brown to succeed Blair.

In reading through the transcript of the press conference (on the White House website at, one could not help noticing two separate yet intertwined themes. The first was the personal mutual admiration society evident between the two men that will be preserved until Brown officially begins his term as prime minister expected to be carried over into the institutions of government The second was the manner in which history would judge each leader.

Unconsciously open to certain possibilities and combinations, my attention was caught the same day by a pair of notices issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released two studies that said fourth grade and twelfth grade students tested in 2006 showed significant improvement in their knowledge of U.S. history when compared to scores recorded in 1994 and 2001, respectively. Educators attributed the improvement (from 64 to 70) in the percentage of fourth graders achieving the “basic” or higher rating on the U.S. history test to increased emphasis on reading skills in grades 1-3. And while no reason was offered for the improved score (from 43 to 47 percent between 2001 and 2006) among the older students, the NAEP noted this was the first time since 1998 that scores for high school students in any subject had shown a “significant increase.”

As much as I enjoyed history and did well in it – I ranked second in my West Point graduation class in Military History – I have always been leery about history, not its study per se but the tendency to interpret or ascribe to it what is not there. All too often, those who study history and then secure positions of political or military power become captive to their idiosyncratic interpretation of history and develop a vision of the present – and the future – that become a rigid, inevitable consequence of the past.

Now I am quite aware of George Santayana's oft-cited caution that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But this caution cuts both ways. One must read (as NAEP tests confirm) and be able to separate history – defined as the record of the present – from myth, which is that field of consciousness out of which history emerges in its own right. Similarly, in reading history, one must make due allowance for the fact that what we read as “history,” even today, is largely the perspective victors – political, military, economic, or otherwise powerful figures.

Particularly dangerous in terms of the “history” that fourth and twelfth graders are or will be reading is the political leader who has no interest in history and thus has no yardstick by which to estimate the extent to which current conditions converge and diverge from the past. Absent this insight, there could easily be an unnecessary, radicalized, abrupt reversal of existing policies and programs rather than more appropriate adaptations.

Americans generally lack a sense of history (as the NAEP scores attest). A contributing factor is the relatively short span of U.S. history and Washington’s rapid rise to pre-eminence on the world stage. This is not to say that leaders whose countries boast long pedigrees stretch into the mists of time are any more clearly or are more enlightened than leaders of countries in the “New World” and post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa. Indeed, ascribing wisdom to the elderly simply because of their age is equally absurd.

But there is a tendency in the U.S. to dismiss history completely, to regard the American hemisphere in general and the U.S. in particular as a tabula rasa on which it is still possible, even today, to renew the sense if not the reality of the “city on the hill.”

This general disregard of history – contempt seems a little too severe a judgment – was on display at the May 17 joint press conference. In one of his extended replies to questions about Iraq and history, Bush said:

“This may not interest you, but I’ll tell you anyway – I read three
histories on George Washington last year. It’s interesting to me
that they’re still analyzing the presidency of our first President.
And my attitude is, if they’re still analyzing 1, 43 doesn’t need to
worry about it. (Laughter.) I’m not going to be around to see the
final history written on my administration.”

Now either the press corps had completely turned over (UK media were present) and those present had no corporate memory; they were being polite, or they ignored the fact that Bush had said the same thing on April 19 of this year and May 5, 2006. This repetition and the jocular manner Bush used would be puzzling had the president not already alluded to historical comparisons with that other George – not 1 (Washington) but 41 – Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush.

Politicians are not the only ones who crave to have a place in history. Henry Ford famously declared: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Ford, like Bush, undervalues history because it is the collection of all these present moments, taken together, that provide a people with the collective identity within which individuals are able to develop their identity and moral compass because there is history for school children to study.

In the summer of 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tony Blair addressed a joint session of Congress in terms of western principles as found in secular western philosophical history.

“Let us say one thing: if we are wrong, we will have destroyed
a threat that at its least is responsible for inhuman carnage and
suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.
But if our critics are wrong, if we are right, as I believe with
every fibre of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we
do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace
when we should have given leadership. That is something history
will not forgive.”

In the Rose Garden yesterday, he repeated this conviction, though more concisely:

“And we took a decision that we thought was very difficult.
I thought then, and I think now, it was the right decision.
History will make a judgment at a particular time.”

And perhaps this is the difference between Blair and Bush: the prime minister is not haunted by the possibility that history will judge him on the basis of comparisons with others who were also prime ministers. Bush, who still has 19 months in his second term, more and more will have his presidency tied to one issue: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To escape this fate, he must somehow play down the idea that history is a formative influence more than it is a record of the past. Blair, I think, understands that real history looks more to the future than the past, and that when he is judged, it will be by today’s fourth graders who will be the heirs and interpreters of his legacy.


Blogger JSN said...

If something has happened in the past a 100,000 times it is likely to occur in the future and one has a large quantity of historical data about how the leaders dealt with the consequences. Natural disasters are an example.

Wars are different in that much of the damage is the result of the incompetence of political and military leaders. If we are to profit from the history of warfare we need to learn how to avoid the many mistakes made in the past. I am not very optimistic about our ability to do that.

The most cost effective approaches are to prevent the war from happening in the first place and if that fails developing methods to end the war as quickly as possible. One possible method is for other countries to stop all trade with the countries at war.

8:14 AM  

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