History – The road to the future

by Annette Bridges. © 2006. All rights reserved.

“The supreme purpose of history is a better world,” spoke former President, Herbert Hoover. If this is true, what happens when history is not recorded correctly or if we stop studying history? How can lessons be learned from the past that lead us toward a better world without study of uncompromised narratives of those lessons?

We’re living in an age when making informed decisions is of paramount importance. The months ahead are no exception. How to stabilize Iraq? How to continue to effectively fight the war on terrorism at home and abroad? And Americans continue to move closer to making the decision of whether to re-elect their current President or elect a new one.

Can an understanding of our history help us make present and future decisions?

In a recent interview with historian David McCullough, The Christian Science Monitor provided some startling information about American’s lack of historic knowledge. (“Not yet forgotten, the ‘greatest generation’ finally set in stone,” May 27, 2004) In fact, historians say that knowledge of the past has always been a weak area for Americans and asserted that such lapses are dangerous. McCullough said, “If people don’t know who we are or how we got to where we are at what cost or struggle, then they are going to place much less value on it all.” My concern is that without valuing knowledge of our past and the lessons it has taught us, how can we keep from repeating the same lessons and at what cost? How do we make progress?

This same article spoke of history being rewritten in textbooks that are leaving out important contexts for events or that are placing an emphasis on select aspects of historic accounts that shifts thought away from understanding the big picture. This type of biased recording of history could make true British author, CK Chesterton’s words, “We can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.”

What if the study of history was no longer part of the education of young Americans? I was stunned to learn that none of the top 50 U.S. colleges or universities now requires American history to graduate. How can the next generation of leaders be prepared to make wise decisions that not only impact the future of America but impact all of humanity, without a solid knowledge of our history?

Of course, I do believe a better world requires more than history recorded accurately and its study. I agree that lessons learned from our past, influences decisions we make today and tomorrow. Each step we take can be a building block to a secure future. Even when we think we have made a mistake. Mary Baker Eddy, a woman whose own history speaks to many people today about breaking through seemingly impossible barriers, offers this promise: “Experience is the victor, never the vanquished; and out of defeat comes the secret of victory. That to-morrow starts from to-day and is one day beyond it, robes the future with hope’s rainbow hues.”

But I think we also need a vision for the future. Eddy advises, “When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress.” Perhaps expectation is required to keep us moving forward, no matter how slow we must walk in order to reach our desired destination. Expectation helps us maintain confidence and confidence keeps us from retracing our steps. I’m not sure knowledge of our history alone would be sufficient.

And what is the desired destination for our world? What constitutes a better world?

In writing The Declaration of Independence, our forefathers perhaps have given the best answers for all times and for all peoples. Not outlining democracy as an end destination, but as ideals to be continuously perfected, practiced and implemented:

A world that believes all men and women are created equal.

A world that asserts all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

A world where governments are instituted among men and women, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

But even our founding fathers didn’t think of everything. Certainly, the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights has continued to be amended throughout our 228 year history.

Our history came with a great price. Let us not forget that price or the future may cost us more than we can afford. Yet, as I reflect on each milestone of progress the United States has struggled to achieve, I suddenly have much greater patience and expectation of a brighter tomorrow for us, Iraq, and other peoples of the world. Thanks to the history of America, I see the promise of a better world.