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Caught in the Jaws of History?


By Stephen J. Heck


 

“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.”     Henry Ford, Founder of Ford Motor Company (1863-1947)

If you utter the word “history” in the presence of many citizens, the response is all too often a blank stare followed by a muttered “So what?  What can it do for me today?”  When the host of an American late night talk show would regularly ask people on the street questions about history, he would get responses such as the first person landed on the moon in 1860 or that the Germans and Japanese were allies of the United States during World War II.   Is this the stupendous failure of the American educational system or is it something else?  The British author L.. P. Hartley provided some possible insight into this issue when he said:  “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I would propose that our discomfort with history is that it requires us to deal with new paradigms that may possibly bring about disquiet in our comfortable, predictable thinking patterns.  History is indeed like a strange and exotic land where you never know what you may uncover.  You may find, for example, that the inhabitants of Crete in 1500 BCE built palaces which had sewers with running water.  You may also learn, much to your amazement, that the inhabitants of Imperial Rome had concerns about crime similar to ours.  Suddenly, you can quickly cross the gulf between your culture and that distant one on the common strands of the human experience. 

But are you willing to make this commitment to travel?

Humans cannot realize their full potential as thinking beings if they are unwilling to continuously enhance their understanding of other cultures and belief systems.  Each human society preceding ours has faced terrible dilemmas and crises that threatened to destroy it.  Each of these societies looked to its own history for insight, and wisdom in these societies was the ability to interpret historical events and apply the lessons to the solution of contemporary practical problems. 

For people of wisdom, being oblivious to their history was unforgivable.  They knew that history did not pardon amnesia.

I believe that in the United States we have begun to forget the true meaning of our own history.  Silly slogans and inaccurate interpretations of substantive historical events encourage too many of us to quickly skim over the deep and profound currents of our history in intellectual water ski-doos.  Consequently, we will increasingly thrash about in the wilderness of our present time without a good map until the jaws of history bite our posterior and remind us of our amnesia.  Each one of us exists within a family network; is connected to a variety of organizations; and resides in a political unit that is part of a larger nation.  History is a part of each of these entities and is not “bunk”.  History is organic and you ignore it at your peril. 

The principal office of history I take to be this: to prevent virtuous actions from being forgotten, and that evil words and deeds should fear an infamous reputation with posterity.     Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Roman Historian (55-120 CE)


Stephen J. Heck is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute.  Steve has extensive experience leading complex, multi-faceted initiatives impacting growth, operating efficiency, and overall financial performance of businesses across diverse sectors including public, private, and not-for-profit organizations. Career achievements include reengineering under-performing business operations, managing Information Technology enterprise system integration and facilitating global business expansion and growth. He has held senior positions with such organizations as WiMAX Forum; Humboldt State University, California; and Metro Regional Government, Portland, Oregon. Steve gained a B.A. from Portland State University; a Masters of Social Work from the University of Washington and a Masters of Public Administration from Portland State University, Oregon. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and IEEE Member, Society on Social Implications of Technology. Since 1996 Steve has been an evaluator with the Prior Learning  Assessment  Program at Marylhurst University in Oregon, and from 1984 to 2000 Steve was  Adjunct Professor in Public Administration at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University in Oregon.


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