Condemned to Repeat It

Why is it that in spite of Darwin, in spite of the common cellular
origin of all life on our planet, we go on thinking of “history” as
that of man’s brief time on the earth, a mere 50,000 years or so? Why
hasn’t “history” become the history of life on the earth and taken its
rightful place in our schools? Are we better off, more civilized, more
capable of furthering our civilization if we can recount the battles,
say, of the American Civil War, and know nothing about, the Miocene
period when large numbers of apes, including probably our own blood
relatives, roamed the plains of eastern Europe and the near East? Who
is more apt to respect human life, the one who can recount what
happened at Shiloh, Tennessee, during the first week of April, 1862, or
the one who knows that during the Miocene Epoch, roughly 15 million
years ago, as many as 100 species of apes roamed throughout the Old
World, including not unlikely human ancestors such as Dryopithecus in
Europe and Sivapithecus in Asia?
Furthermore we’re told (A Lesson About History’s Lessons)
that kids now a days are not even learning man’s recent history in the
schools. “Each of us who teaches history has been reminded repeatedly
in recent years about the “historical illiteracy” of our nation’s
youth. The Bradley Commission, Diane Ravitch, the evening news, even
chance acquaintances tell us that the ‘typical’ American teenager
cannot place the Civil War in the correct decade (or perhaps even the
correct half century). That same generic seventeen-year-old, we are
told, does not know the purpose of Jim Crow legislation, nor recognize
the contribution of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in ending that
chapter in our history. He or she does not know that England colonized
North America’s Atlantic coast, and is unaware that Spain’s imperial
arm extended into the American Southwest.”
But these corrective
comments, of which there are no end, never include mention of the much
greater “hole” in kids’ knowledge of the history of life on earth. Of
that much earlier history, which most certainly tells us much more
about ourselves than, say, the Battle of Shiloh, by in large nothing is
known by our school children, with only one exception, the Jurassic and
Cretaceous Periods hundreds of millions of years ago when the
dinosaurs, then terrible lizards, but now children’s playthings, ruled.
So instead of teaching our children the history of life, the life that
we share with all living creatures, we teach a few favored periods of
history, for young children times of the ancient Egyptians and, the
American West, for older children, perhaps, the times of the Greeks and
the Romans, a bit of the so-called Middle Ages, the founding of our
country, and then in great detail the modern period, which is primarily
one of battles and wars, of men killing one another and in most
instances for no good reason. Wouldn’t our children be better served to
learn the history, say, of the movement of the earth’s crust, and the
creation of the Himmalayas as the plates crashed together, the first
appearance of homo sapiens in Afirca and how he came to people the
earth?
It was George Santayana
philosopher, essayist, poet, novelist, and lifelong Spanish citizen,
who said that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it.” Now this statement is often used by history teachers, and
even more often perhaps by politicians, to stress the importance of the
knowledge of history. But here also they are only talking about man’s
most recent history, again that of a few thousand years at most.
Furthermore does knowing the past enable us to avoid repeating it?
Shouldn’t the knowledge of Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” policy
have prevented the subsequent Yalta give-away of Eastern Europe? It
didn’t of course. Nor did knowledge of the Vietnamese War prevent our
current war in Iraq from taking place. So that one might just as well
say that those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
But
if by “past” we mean the history of past life on the earth the
statement then becomes nonsense. Whether we “remember” it or not that
life will not be repeated. The dinosaurs are gone forever, as is
Pangaea, as is the wooly mammoth. Rather to remember this past is to
realize how precious life is. And that’s why this past ought to be
taught in the schools. Too often remembering our most recent past,
which has been one of wars and the slaughter of millions, seems to make
us perpetrators of more of the same. Witness the predominance in our
lives of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-like groups, and the ascendancy of the
military industrial complexes within our most developed nations.
Knowledge of our recent, tragic past has done nothing to prevent all
this from coming about, whereas knowledge and understanding of life’s
history, of the relatedness of all life’s forms, might have.

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