on history

If you only know me casually or are one of my Facebook friends, there’s a solid chance that other than myself, Ken Burns is the only historian you’ve ever heard of. He’s way more famous than I am 🙂
 
Read the commencement speech he delivered to the graduating class of 2016 at Stanford University. (opens in new tab) Take away what you take away, but I promise if you read it, you *will* take something away and be a more thoughtful person for it.
 
We’ve all heard that old cliché about those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. While humanity certainly exists in a cyclical fashion, I don’t believe we are doomed to repeat events about which we do not learn.
 
What we are, however, is doomed to never learning the lessons of those who went before us. If we remain ignorant of history, we lose the opportunity to learn what didn’t work before. No matter what transpires next, be it similar to previous events or a completely new event, we have prevented ourselves from advancement, from improvement.
 
French social contract theoretician Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned us that society is the corruptor of man; he said this because he believed that mankind is naturally good – even virtuous.  (I disagree with him, but that’s a topic for another time.)  The problem, Rousseau said, is that a bad upbringing and a poor (or nonexistent) education make people more susceptible to corruption, and when they get into positions of authority, the institutions which they staff then become corrupt, creating a cycle of nightmares that destroys society.

It stands to reason, then, that good people create good institutions, good institutions create good societies, and good societies create good governments – which in turn help create good people.  It’s a utopian cycle, to be sure, and one at which we have singularly failed to achieve.

Listen (or read) to Ken Burns, though, and breathe deep his words of wisdom.  We can learn from history, and in doing so, we can absorb the lessons of our ancestors. We may make some of the same mistakes they made, but they will be mistakes of choice, not ignorance, and we can always improve on our choices.

*Commencement speech transcript: http://news.stanford.edu/2016/06/12/prepared-text-2016-stanford-commencement-address-ken-burns/

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