Why Study the Past

So that we neither idolize it nor demonize it, neither expect it to provide all the answers (as in the Renaissance), nor blame it for all of the things that we see wrong about our own day (as in the Reformation).  There was never a Golden Age in which everything was idyllic or perfect; there has never been a Turning Point after everything went wrong (or right).  The past has always been just like the present, mixed up, contrary, the best of times and the worst of times all at the same time.  Traditions have always been both good and bad, institutions have always been subject to innovation and change.  There have always been people eager to take advantage of others; there have always been people willing to help.  It does no good, therefore, to pretend that we who are alive now are either better or worse, wiser or more corrupt, more or less virtuous or vicious than those who have come before us.  If we are wise, we will learn from them; such is the gift of civilization and the purpose of education.  But we will still have to make our own futures based on who we are in the present.  It is likely that we will make mistakes and that future generations will be tempted to blame us even as they enjoy the insights and inventions we have made.  Thus we study the past to be humbled by both its greatness--and its folly.  For what we do with it, however, we have only ourselves to praise--or blame.


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