Who Needs the Past?

Anderson Scholar Convocation
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
September 1998

"Yeah, Sure," my friend said, "I know history is supposed to be important, but really, who cares about those dead people?" As I sputtered for an answer to this outrageous assault on the core discipline of all educated people, she continued, "I mean, what's new to find out in history anyway? They can't do anything else; it's over. So who needs the past?"

The past fascinates us. We think that maybe the secret of personal triumph comes from understanding successful heroes from the past. We hope that by studying the past we can learn how to prevent or predict the fall of the American Empire. We expect that the examples of past behaviors can teach us the right and just and proper way. So we read biographies of famous people, we buy unprecedented numbers of histories of failed regimes and disgraced dictators, we eagerly consume the accounts of national rise and fall, all in the hopes of learning something important about ourselves and our future. Many of us hope that the past can explain our present and foretell our future.

"So they say," responds my skeptical friend. "But what do they learn? Everyone finds different answers out of the same set of historical facts, and we keep on making mistakes over and over as individuals and nations, so who needs the past?"

History comes with us into the present in many ways. Sometimes it serves to mark our passage through time and space, providing the names and dates and people whose triumphs and exploits we take as precursors to our own. Cotton Mather and George Washington; Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King; 1492 and 1776, John Brown and Malcom X; Hernán Cortés and Simón Bolívar; Word Wars I and II; the Conquest of Mexico and Manifest Destiny each of these brings to mind moments in the flow of events over time that give us the world we now enjoy.

Although my colleague thinks of history as dead people who can do no more and whose work carries no relevance to our time, it is only because she has learned no history. History never stays in the past but engages us at every twist and turn in our contemporary search for the future.

Today we live by the Internet, a created territory opened instantly before us, available for the taking, free and unchallenged in access, undisciplined and wild in its behavior. Can we find a past experience that helps us understand this new resource? Of course we can. Our present-minded contemporaries, who have no context for their knowledge and little depth to their understanding, think the Internet is a new and unknown domain. They think we engage this phenomenon without direction or guidance because they have not the wisdom of our past. When they need it to help understand, not explain and not predict, but understand the present and future, they lack the experience of centuries and the wisdom of generations to help them recognize the differences between the transitory and the permanent, between the revolutionary and the merely novel, between the idiosyncrasy and the trend.

"Ok," she said, her skepticism still strong but her interest piqued, "Ok, so how does your beloved past help us understand the totally new technology that is the Internet?"

"Have you ever seen a cowboy movie," I asked. "You know, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Lonesome Dove or Support Your Local Gunfighter?"

Trivialized and romanticized, these historical dramas transform our historical structure into popular myth, but myths that like all folktales carry a message of historical wisdom into the future. The Internet is but another vast resource available for exploitation, unfettered by visible and enforceable laws, apparently inexhaustible and totally renewable. Explored by wild pioneers (trappers and explorers transformed into the hackers, technoids and geeks of the Internet), our past permits us to understand that uncontrolled but highly valuable resources go through some reasonably predictable stages on the way to civilized rational control. We fight the battles of the outlaws (hackers who invade our computers and take what they want or spammers who flood the Internet with unsolicited messages). We argue over whose culture will control the range (cattlemen or ranchers, fences or free-range, buffalo or railroads and porn merchants or scientists, students or game players, e-commerce or public information). From rudimentary law by force, custom, and fiat we move to regulation and standardization. Eventually, the wild untamed and apparently endlessly expandable resource of the wild west (or Internet) becomes connected into our regular lives, it shrinks in apparent size, our behavior in its domain becomes regulated, and we seek to conserve and manage the resource.

Today, whether in higher education, business, or technology, we hear endlessly about the unknown future of the World Wide Web. Those who know our past can view this technological future with confidence. Private interests, whether banks, brokers, booksellers, computer stores, catalog firms, or media entrepreneurs struggle today to capture real estate on the web as American railroads did in another time. The Internet of course appears free to the user. The entrepreneurs because they can't capture the transportation network itself look to control the entries and exits. If we want to anticipate the flow of events that will surround the development of this new and exciting world of technology, we can read our history and absorb the wisdom from the development not just of our railroads but also of our interstate highway systems. They too, for the most part, came free to the direct user from government investment.

Like the Internet entrepreneurs today, yesterday's American private enterprise captured territory at the on and off ramps, advertising shamelessly and often amusingly along the roadway. So too on the Internet, a furious competition exists to entice us to get on and off through proprietary portals: Yahoo, AoL, Lycos, AltaVista, to name but a few places well known to the technologically literate members of our audience.

"Well, then," my colleague asked, "Why don't you tell me who will win?"

"Nope," I said, "That's not for history to determine."

Burma Shave, a name known to hardly any of today's students, dominated the roadways of my youth with advertisements but gave way in our time to malls and giant family truck stops. On the Internet the competition for control and profit has just begun, the services that will attract you and me may not yet be known. Burma Shave died with the speed of the multilane freeway. As the Internet bandwidth expands and our ability and surfing tools improve, we may find Yahoo a historic relic in a few years, consigned to museums as this generation's electronic equivalent of the Golden Arches captures the Internet's commercial spaces.

"So," she says; "If I read my history I can see what will happen to the Internet?"

"Nope," I respond, "If you read your history you will have an experience, a breadth of knowledge, a wisdom far beyond anything you can get on your own in your lifetime that permit you to make quality, substantive judgments about human behavior."

We need the past because it never dies, because it represents the cumulative store of human experience that sustains wisdom. In preliterate societies, the old people received great respect. Not for their power or their strength, not because they ran fast or hunted well, but because their age carried with it experience and from that experience came wisdom. For us, who live in the age of instant information and rapidly changing technologies, the wisdom of our elders isn't enough to help us succeed.

We need the wisdom of generations. As our times and their challenges and opportunities change, so too does the wisdom we require from our past. When our challenges were diplomatic and involved the relations between sovereign states, we sought the experience of generations of diplomats and cultivated diplomatic history. When we faced the threats and realities of war, our historians brought us the experience of warriors and their societies to help deepen our understanding. When we entered the globalized world of social, political, racial, and cultural conflict, our historians sought to give us the vicarious learning that comes from reliving the experiences of generations before all over the world.

We need the past because we humans prove quite predictable. We do similar things and find similar solutions to similar problems. We respond to challenge and opportunity in ways that track a relatively narrow range of alternatives. The apparently infinite variety in the details of the human condition obscures the fundamental long-term behaviors that drive all of us. As individuals, the variation in human behavior makes the difference between life and death, poverty and wealth, success and failure, and so for us as individual, the past predicts nothing. But in acquiring the wisdom that helps us make those individual choices, it is only through the past that we can find the sufficient experience in time to help us to choose what is real and enduring from what is shallow and transitory.

Our lives are short and the challenges great. By the time we are old and wise, our opportunity for decision has passed us by. Only through our reading of the past can we become wise enough, soon enough, to choose well the things we must do. The better our understanding of the past, the better prepared we enter the future.

"Ok," she said, "I'll go read a history book. Which one should I read?"

John V. Lombardi
September 1998