History Lessons

The American philosopher/novelist George Santayana famously said that those who refuse to read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In one of his recent blogs my friend BTG expanded on Santayana’s comment by noting the exemplary behavior of Paul O’Neill, C.E.O. of Alcoa who apparently was one of the few who listened to Santayana: he insisted that his employees at Alcoa own up to and learn from their mistakes so they would not repeat them. In doing so, he improved communication within the company and managed to turn around a struggling company and make of it a success.

My comment in response to BTG was that we seem to be like young kids who prefer to make our own mistakes. I had referred in my blog to the fact that during the turbulent 60s of the last century when the college kids were asking about the “relevance” of such courses as history, those in charge of higher education had no answer and ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water [they didn’t ask me!]. What the kids were asking, in their own inarticulate way, was why they should have to take college courses that didn’t translate into immediate cash value in the marketplace. I used history as an example, but it could apply to most of the courses in the liberal arts which at that time formed the core of most college curricula. In any event, the result of the inability of college professors to respond to their critics at the time was that the colleges and universities started throwing out liberal arts courses that had for generations been regarded as essential to the makeup of an educated person and shifting the focus to the “useful” arts. In other words, we traded job training for education. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened gradually and as a society we are the worse for it.

As I say, we are like kids and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t think the things that happen to other people will happen to us because we are different. Statistics show that seat belts save lives, but we won’t wear ours because we don’t think we could possibly have an accident. We lack that historical, literary, and psychological perspective that deepens and broadens our awareness of what is going on around us. The colleges and universities that have eliminated core requirements have simply exacerbated a cultural situation that breeds widespread ignorance posing as insight and perception. We think because there is an unlimited amount of information out there accessible to anyone with a computer we are wiser than those who went before us. But we are really not all that bright and we habitually refuse to learn from the mistakes our predecessors made.  This is the best possible answer to those militant students who 50 years ago challenged the college faculties to explain why they needed an education: wisdom has been lost in the information glut.

There is a movement which I have alluded to in previous blogs that seeks to right the ship. It is fostered by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is housed in Washington, D.C. In a nationwide project they call “What Will They Learn?” this group has scrutinized the core requirements of every college and university in this country under a microscope and found virtually all of them wanting. Colleges really don’t require much of anything outside the major requirement; they seem perfectly content to have narrow, ignorant adults going forth with degrees they can hang on their walls that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. I don’t blame the students. They don’t know any better. But college professors who do in fact live in ivory towers should realize that their job is not to protect their territory and turn out replicas of themselves. Rather, their job is to help young people come to a deeper, more critical perspective of their world that makes life worth living — learn to use their minds, acquire good communication skills, understand history, have at least a nodding acquaintance with poetry and literature, learn to calculate and become scientifically literate. Such people make better citizens and more valuable employees. In the end the liberal arts are the most useful because they liberate the minds of those who come into contact with them.

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6 thoughts on “History Lessons

  1. Hugh, many thanks for the reference. Great post. I think you hit the nail on the head about why I don’t prefer these 30 month tech courses disguised as a college education. They leave out all of the other courses that will make you a more well-rounded individual and teach you how to think. These tech schools do serve a purpose and I don’t want to imply they don’t, but they leave off so much learning. We are creating too many slios in thought and we need to give people a broad perspective and historical context. Thanks again and well done. BTG

  2. Hugh, the other day I read an old Russian proverb that’s an interesting variation of Santayana’s quote: “Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.” There’s a pause in the proverb, and the it continues with this darker warning: “But forget the past, and you’ll lose both eyes.”

  3. I made a typo in the proverb. Here it is again: “Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.” There’s a pause in the proverb, and then it continues with this darker warning: “But forget the past, and you’ll lose both eyes.”

  4. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I am fairly convinced at this point I should have gone to culinary school instead of following my passion and pursuing a BA and MA in philosophy. Years of unemployment and underemployment, due in some part to my degrees, has left me a little bitter. Many HR people tell me they ignore my resume because of the degrees. They don’t want to hire someone they think we leave in 6 months when a “better offer” comes along. So, as a result, I get no offers at all. I am currently working as a volunteer at a thrift store and receive room and board at a sober living facility as my compensation. I am grateful to God for having this opportunity in my life. I could be homeless. And I don’t even read philosophy anymore. It feels completely pointless now. I’ll never teach again and its impossible to get a good conversation going with anyone about Kant. Well, impossible with anyone but you, Hugh. My love of philosophy feels like a curse. Should have gone to culinary school and developed a passion for pastry.

    • I’m sorry to hear this, but I hesitate to conclude that your experience is typical of all who major in the liberal arts!

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