The Use, If Any, of History

Source: Rebecca Onion, Slate staff writer, in Arts and Letters Daily, June 9

In a provocative new book, David Rieff questions whether remembering the past can really spare us from repeating it. First paragraph of the review:

In his new book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, journalist David Rieff questions the idea that remembering the past is an inherently virtuous practice that will help us solve present-day problems. It’s a philosophical argument that he pursues across the globe, invoking examples drawn from the histories of the United States, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Bosnia, Israel, and Ireland, among others.

“What if,” Rieff asks, “a decent measure of communal forgetting is actually the sine qua non of a peaceful and decent society, while remembering is the politically, socially, and morally risky pursuit?”

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5 responses to “The Use, If Any, of History

  1. Elisabeth Ecker

    We are not very good in learning from past mistakes, but we have a tendency to remember past injustices, which of course perpetuates problems.

  2. Bruce Steele

    History may or may not be a useful tool for solving present day problems, depending on whose hands it is in and who perceives the lessons. Of equal concern is that far too many of today’s citizens seem unable to use any form of logic to address their or society’s challenges. Instinct, emotion and bullying seem to “Trump” reason at every turn. The “yes” and “no” operating modalities of the digital age may have permanently migrated from computer hardware logic boards into overly simplistic and illogical human thought patterns.

  3. King Townsend

    Elizabeth is right. Victimology is rampant and nothing is easier than to find in the past egregious injustices and brutalities. But rather than celebrate the progress we have been making towards humane standards, too many of us find more satisfaction in demanding current atonement for the sins of our forebears. Some, of course, would expunge from our history altogether such admitted villains as Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson and even our own Sir John A. So yes, history has its perils.

  4. mike holliday

    It all depends on how the history is taught. If you teach it as a hate subject then centuries old injustices will fester and hatreds magnify (think the Balkans).
    If it is taught as a learning experience – this was done, it turned like this – then history has an important role in influencing decision making.

  5. Fred Langan

    He has a point. The Serbs remember some battle in the 14th century, the Irish fuss about 1689 and 1798 and please don’t mention the Crusades. Quebec’s licence plate says Je me souvien. Just what we are meant to remember is unclear. It used to be La Belle Province.