“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past,but by the responsibility for our future.”
George Bernard Shaw
The G-8 summit the annual meeting of the seven richest countries in the world plus Russia, gets underway this week. This is, as far as can be predicted at this time, the last international forum at which the “redoubtable duo” of George Bush and Tony Blair will be on the world stage – even though there will be six other leaders vying for space and media time.
Blair, of course, was in the U.S. in mid-May for his final run as British Prime Minister. He had already announced he would resign his position effective June 27, and the Labour Party had subsequently selected the current Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) Gordon Brown to succeed Blair.
Because of the competition from the other G-8 countries, the Rose Garden press conference at the conclusion of Blair’s May visit will be of more interest to historian’s than any statements from the G-8. And in reading through the transcript of that press conference (on the White House website at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/05/20070517.html), one cannot help but notice two separate yet intertwined themes. The first was the Bush-Blair mutual admiration society that Brown will have to confront until the new U.S. president is sworn in on January 20, 2009. The second theme, undoubtedly present because Blair had already announced the effective date of his resignation and Bush has only 19 months left in his term, was the manner in which history would judge each leader.
Unconsciously open to certain possibilities and combinations, my attention was caught the same day by a pair of studies issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that said fourth grade and twelfth grade students tested in 2006 showed significant improvement in their knowledge of U.S. history when compared to scores recorded in 1994 and 2001, respectively. Educators attributed the improvement (from 64 to 70) in the percentage of fourth graders achieving the “basic” or higher rating on the U.S. history test to increased emphasis on reading skills in grades 1-3. And while no reason was offered for the improved score (from 43 to 47 percent between 2001 and 2006) among the older students, the NAEP noted this was the first time since 1998 that scores for high school students in any subject had shown a “significant increase.”
As much as I enjoyed history and did well in it – I ranked second in my West Point graduation class in Military History – I have always been leery about history, not its study per se but the tendency to interpret or ascribe to it what is not there. All too often, those who study history and then secure positions of political or military power become captive to their idiosyncratic interpretation of history and develop a vision of the present – and the future – that becomes a rigid, inevitable consequence of the past.
Now I am quite aware of George Santayana’s oft-cited caution that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But this caution cuts both ways. One must read (as NAEP tests confirm) and be able to separate history – defined as the record of the present – from myth, which is that field of consciousness out of which history emerges in its own right. Similarly, in reading history, one must make due allowance for the fact that what we read as “history,” even today, is largely the perspective of the victors – political, military, economic, or of powerful figures.
Particularly dangerous in terms of the “history” that fourth and twelfth graders are or will be reading is the political leader who has no interest in history and thus has no yardstick by which to estimate the extent to which current conditions converge and diverge from the past. Absent this insight, there could easily be an unnecessary, radicalized, abrupt reversal of existing policies and programs rather than more appropriate adaptations.
Americans generally lack a sense of history (as the NAEP scores attest). A contributing factor is the relatively short span of U.S. history and Washington’s rapid rise to pre-eminence on the world stage. This is not to say that leaders whose countries boast long pedigrees stretch into the mists of time are any more clearly or are more enlightened than leaders of countries in the “New World” and post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa. Indeed, ascribing wisdom to the elderly simply because of their age is equally absurd.
But there is a tendency in the U.S. to dismiss history completely, to regard the American hemisphere in general and the U.S. in particular as a tabula rasa on which it is still possible, even today, to renew the sense if not the reality of the “city on the hill.”
This general disregard of history – contempt seems a little too severe a judgment even for Bush– was on display at the May 17 joint press conference. In one of his extended replies to questions about Iraq and history, Bush said:
“This may not interest you, but I’ll tell you anyway – I read three histories on George Washington last year. It’s interesting to me that they’re still analyzing the presidency of our first President. And my attitude is, if they’re still analyzing 1, 43 doesn’t need to worry about it. (Laughter.) I’m not going to be around to see the final history written on my administration.”
Now either the press corps had completely turned over (UK media were present) and those present had no corporate memory; the press were being polite; or they ignored the fact that Bush had said the same thing on April 19 of this year and May 5, 2006. This repetition and the jocular manner Bush used would be puzzling had the president not already alluded to historical comparisons with that other George – not 1 (Washington) but 41 – Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush.
Of course, politicians are not the only ones who crave a place in, or failing that, try to downplay history. Henry Ford famously declared: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Ford, like Bush, undervalued history. He could not grasp the point that history, as the collection of all the present moments, provides a people with the collective identity within which, individually, they develop their identity and moral compass – and passes this identity to their children through the study of their heritage.
In the summer of 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tony Blair addressed a joint session of Congress in terms of western principles as found in secular western philosophical history.