Published in the January 24, 2014 Santa Maria Times.
“History,” said Henry Ford, “is more or less bunk.”
Fortunately, Henry Ford was an industrialist, not an educator. But knowledge of history is the basis upon which today’s decisions are made.
Our educational system, locally and nationally, needs to spend more time teaching the important lessons of the past.
For example, I often give my students at Allan Hancock College a quiz on the Vietnam War, asking such fundamental questions as, when did the war start? When did it end? Why was it fought? Only a few students have any idea. Most say they were taught next to nothing about it in high school or college.
That war happened scarcely a generation ago. At least 58,000 Americans died. Yet it is already being forgotten. Does it matter? Was Henry Ford right? What benefit is there to knowing history?
“Study the past if you would define the future,” said Confucius 2,500 years ago. About 2,000 years later, Shakespeare echoed him: “What is past is prologue.”
We cannot ignore history because history will not ignore us. What has happened once can happen again.
As a component of critical thinking, I give a lesson on the Nazi Holocaust. Once again, the lack of knowledge I encounter is unsettling. But this is a subject wherein the students always want to know more, and when asked why it is important to learn about this, they know the answer: “So it can’t happen again.”
This brings us to the classic rebuttal to Henry Ford: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History is a warning light. It tells us what can happen if we are not alert to the lessons it offers.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the Germans asked the Allies for an armistice, admitting they were beaten in World War I. But in the years that followed, a myth grew in Germany – they hadn’t been beaten at all. In fact, they had been on the brink of victory when their army was sold out by politicians. Next time there would be no sellout. Next time they would win.
That myth, exploited by the mustachioed madman who became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, made it easier for him to lead them into World War II. With the incineration of their cities, their country devastated, and millions dead, the Germans learned the price of refusing to face a historical truth.
Another example: After 12 years, we are still bogged down in Afghanistan. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of that troubled country’s past could have warned us that Afghanistan is called “the graveyard of empires” for a reason.
The Soviets fought an unsuccessful war there in the 1980s. The British fought there repeatedly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and each time withdrew, unable to subdue that savage land.
That prompted Rudyard Kipling to warn British soldiers of what awaited them if they were sent to fight there:
“When you are wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your God like a soldier.”
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach,” said Aldous Huxley.
History is a light we dare not put out. To do so invites tragedy. Henry Ford was wrong. History is not bunk. History is essential. We ignore the lessons it offers at our own risk.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA