Forgetting the past endangers the future

As Americans increasingly focus on the future, we are forgetting the past, which can make our future more dangerous.

That is the warning in a challenging new book by Stephen Bertman, professor of languages, literatures and cultures at Canada’s University of Windsor. It’s called "Cultural Amnesia: America’s Future and the Crisis of Memory"(Praeger).

In part, the past is important because people who lived before us discovered certain truths from which we can learn and avoid repeating their mistakes. But as we more and more find the past a relic unworthy of our attention, our short-term memory grows shorter and our ignorance grows larger.

The figures are familiar. According to Gallup polls, 60 percent of adult Americans don’t know the name of the president who dropped the first atomic bomb. Among college seniors, 42 percent are unable to place the Civil War in the right half-century, and 24 percent believe Columbus discovered America in the 1500s.

 Students are majoring in technology skills as the quickest way to make money. They’re mostly forgetting the humanities that help create a well-rounded life. This has led, in Bertman’s words, to "materialistic creed that celebrates transience, and an electronic faith that worships the present to the exclusion of all other dimensions of time. Indeed, it is these forces, more than any others, that will govern the course of American history in the 21st century."

An ignorance of the past also has political implications. Politicians increasingly rely on an uninformed public to slip through unconstitutional legislation limiting our freedoms. If only for self-preservation, we would be wise to reconsider the past.

Americans fall far short of the rest of the world in knowledge of geography. We not only don’t know about events in the rest of the world; we don’t know where the rest of the world is. In 1988 the National geographic Society commissioned a survey of the geographic knowledge of citizens from may nations. The Americans team came in last. Most Americans couldn’t find the Persian Gulf; about half knew the location of Central America; 15 percent reversed North and South Korea; 43 percent were unable to locate England; and 14 percent of Americans couldn’t find there own county on a map. A different survey found only 48 percent of American know that the Earth goes around the sun once a year.

Most modern teaching, even at the college level, is about isolated facts disconnected from a philosophy of the whole, America, after all, was founded on a philosophy. Our economy, liberty and justice flowed from that philosophy. If we forget it, we forget America. Bertman argues there is a tremendous cost to be paid when we overlook our past: "The life of an individual is measured in years and decades; the life of a culture, in centuries and even millennia. A culture maintains its identity by passing on the sum of its values and experiences from on generation to the next. Its memory must be organic and transtemporal, else the culture dies or survives only as a hollow shell." Is that prophecy, or is it diagnosis of our present condition?

Memory loss distorts how we view everything: our county, its culture and even human relationships. If no stories from the past about overcoming are recalled, then where is the appeal to self-sacrifice, hard work and individual responsibility, marital faithfulness and accountability? Nobel laureate John Eccles reminds us, "Without (memory) we are hollow persons, not only empty of a past, but lacking a foundation upon which to build the future. We are what we remember." Bertman puts it this way: "If the memories of the past are not passed on, for all intents and purposes, they cease to exist." And, he warns, "By creating the impression that the new is intrinsically superior to the old, science and technology have effectively dethroned tradition. Simultaneously, they also elevated the stature of the present and future in the human mind."

Bertman notes the computer we worship "has memory, but no remembrance." It allows us to mistake access to recent information for wisdom. Materialism does not produce a meaningful philosophy of life. A growing number of young people no longer think that it is important. Give them money, that’s what they want. "Cultural Amnesia" is a compelling book with the answer to many of our contemporary problems. Don’t forget to read it.

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