The German philosopher Hegel, whose theories have given more headaches to more students than any number of keg parties, once said: “What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” If Hegel was right, you have to wonder why we have traditions like Memorial Day that are designed to remind us of the past.
The obvious answer is that we have memorials because our memories are so short. For example, who remembers the last episode of Seinfeld, or the date Ginger Spice left the Spice Girls? These earthshaking events are already lost in the smog of history because they have been given no proper memorials. The weight of the past is so great, and the mass of facts to be remembered is so immense, that we can only afford to preserve a few selected highlights. So our historical memories are like the memorials themselves, sound bites from the past: a phrase here, a carefully edited image there, a few names and dates, floating in a great void of forgetfulness.
This is bad news for professional historians, who see it as the end of civilization. They are fond of quoting the famous dictum of George Santayana that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
But that’s the opposite of the truth. Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it forever. Look at Northern and Southern Ireland, Serbia and Kosovo, India and Pakistan, Israel and the Arab states, Russia and Chechnya, all cherishing their ancient grievances from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, passing on their hatreds lovingly from generation to generation, so that nothing can ever be solved or forgiven. The ancient Greeks had poets, like Homer, whose genius it was to celebrate every battle as far back as memory could reach so that old enemies would never be forgotten. Even today, for many nations, their national grudges are sacred.
But not here: when Americans say “That’s history,” they mean that it is irrelevant, gone, and forgotten. Henry Ford famously said: “History is bunk.” And the education system is fully in tune with these attitudes.
A widely publicized report from the US Department of Education in the 1990s revealed an almost complete abandonment of history teaching in schools. The high school seniors tested were more or less incapable of distinguishing between World War Two and the Peloponnesian War. It seems that most states require only one year each of American and world history, and several state have indeed abandoned the teaching of history altogether. My own experience with college students is that they arrive and remain as a-historical as cats.
This benign historical amnesia is one of the most hopeful things about American culture. The enormous generosity of this nation to its enemies after the World Wars, Vietnam and the Cold War is legendary, and puzzling to other nations who suspected some devious plot. But I don’t think there was any plot. It’s just that the past was wiped off the slate as soon as it happened. We say: “forgive and forget.” But perhaps “forget and forgive” might be closer to the truth.
Hegel was half-right. What we learn from history is to beware of learning too much history. Traditions like Memorial Day strike just the right balance between too much remembering, and too little. We see the moving ceremonies at Arlington, the flowers, the parades, the touching tributes to those who died. In that moment, we remember.
Then, mercifully and immediately, we forget.