“You can only go as far forward as you can reach back.” Old proverb
I came across this pithy reminder about why I care so much about history. And why as a nation we are stuck in the eddy of the next mass shooting, the next police violence, the next hate crime. The news appears to us as random aberrations and “tragedies” asking for “our thoughts and prayers” when in fact it is the logical result of the unquestioned choices we have made over and over and over again. As long as we remain ignorant of those ever-cycling forces, we continue to be at their mercy. And it is clear beyond question that these forces are anything but merciful.
Of course, knowledge of history alone solves nothing when it is taught as it has been, as a dry series of dates and wars and successions of leaders. History is always tied to culture, tied to the prevailing notions about power and justice and our proper (or improper) place in this world. It is always tied to the limits of our knowledge, be it scientific, religious, humanitarian and the proper flow out of those swirling stuck eddies is to move downstream to the wider bodies of knowledge. We not only need to not what happened, but consider why it happened and measure it with the moral lens of what we now know and what we need to do to stop the things that harm us over and over and over again.
And we know so little. When our reach into the past goes about as far as yesterday, our vision of the future can only travel as far as tomorrow. But when we immerse ourselves in the old stories, the histories we want to halt and the mythologies we want to re-awaken, our vision enlarges. That’s precisely the kind of education we need, in schools, in talk shows, in literature and film, in dinners with the neighbors (coming soon!).
Reach back. Move forward. Simple to say, difficult to do. Let’s go.