COMMENTARY: Studying History, and Stating the Obvious even if it is no longer Obvious

Oklahoma City – Recently, I posted on my personal Facebook page and elsewhere words from Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, the first Secretary of State, second vice president, and third president of the United States.

The quotation, from 1781:

“History by apprising [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”

Former Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Cody Graves responded quickly with a comment:

That assumes that the past is studied…sadly far too many of our friends have not taken the time…”

I have here adapted slightly my reply to Graves, a Facebook friend who is actually a friend.

Cody’s sentence seems right. In the few words he used there is a lot of insight reflecting years of observance and contemplation.

Learning from the past requires a willingness to … learn.

Concerning those who believe they know everything about everything and who act as if history worth knowing began with their pain and their need, rather than at the dawn of humanity … Well, there is in such a mindset trouble, in the form of multiple roadblocks to common understanding, experience and meaning.

Learning in the sense Jefferson touched on can only happen for those willing to study events or people in context, to listen to those who provide information about the past in order to inform, to enlighten, to illuminate dark corners.

More consumers of information have grown weary of the work required to “learn” in this sense. When empathy is undermined or destroyed through a push to reach judgments based on appearances and on emotion and with preconceived notions, then history devolves into a weapon and not a tool for instruction. This is in direct opposition to the development of discernment and restraint.

Once upon a time, I found it common for people to “walk a mile” in the other person’s shoes, or moccasins or boots or other footwear. But often now even the call on another to “see this through my eyes” is dismissed. The call for restraint itself tagged a form of assumed “privilege.”

Yes, this is working in all directions right now. I blame particular factions more than others but concur that it is pervasive. Not only have far too many Americans (and others) not taken the time or made the effort to learn from the past, they regard the past as meaningless … until they decide it has meaning.

To say that we in America are presently in a vicious cycle is to state the obvious — but stating the obvious is getting harder because fewer and fewer things are “obvious” to more and more observers.

NOTE: This commentary, adapted from previous reflections online, appeared in the March 2021 edition of the The City Sentinel newspaper, an independent, locally-owned and non-partisan newspaper based in Oklahoma City.