Umberto Eco on the Merits of Studying History (and the Terrors of Losing It)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana

Unit 731.

Sound familiar? Probably not. Until recently, I didn’t know what they were. Or what they did.

Unit 731 was a Japanese military unit responsible for chemical warfare and biological research during WWII. Here’s a small sample of what they were capable of, from Wikipedia:

“Physiologist Yoshimura Hisato conducted experiments by taking captives outside, dipping various appendages into water, and allowing the limb to freeze. Once frozen, which testimony from a Japanese officer said “was determined after the ‘frozen arms, when struck with a short stick, emitted a sound resembling that which a board gives when it is struck’”, ice was chipped away and the area doused in water. The effects of different water temperatures were tested by bludgeoning the victim to determine if any areas were still frozen. Variations of these tests in more gruesome forms were performed.”

Other “experiments” included the purposeful removal of organs from live, human subjects and the infection of prisoners with contagious diseases. Anything atrocious you can think of, they did it.

I spend a lot of time in Japan. My girlfriend is Japanese. Let me tell you — the Japanese do not remember. The war, hundreds of thousands of civilian killings during the Nanking massacre, the atrocities of Unit 731, all of that has faded away to the level of a bad dream.

My generation, in the US, isn’t doing much better. The 20th century was one of the most terrifying centuries in human history. Yet, most of us (myself included) have no clue of even the most rudimentary facts — and we have even less of an idea of what those facts might mean.

In a talk titled Against the Loss of Memory, professor and polymath Umberto Eco speaks of this loss of the memory :

“It happens more and more than in Italy young people (including many university students) when tested about facts concerning, let us say, the Second World War, they do not know how to define historical characters such as Badoglio or Churchill or Roosevelt … Worst than that, they are unable to tell something exact about events that happened ten years before.”

What terrifies me about this trend is that, as soon as we start to forget about the past we are, as George Santayana put it, “condemned to repeat it.”

I asked a Chinese Canadian friend of mine today how many people he thought died unnecessarily under Mao. His guess (and it was just a guess) was 1 million. The actual number is closer to 100 million — twice the population of today’s South Korea. Just a few years ago, I would’ve guessed the same.

This “loss” of memory is not just public ignorance either. The academics are doing it too:

“Unfortunately such a loss of memory is at work even in the scholarly word. If I consult an American book published today on some specialized topic, I detect that the bibliography does not go backwards beyond the eighties, which can be understandable for certain sciences in progress, dealing for instance with Higg’s boson, but it is whimsical as far as humanities are concerned. I remember to have seen a book on philosophy where at a certain point a certain idea by Kant was mentioned and a footnoted read “See Brown 1982.” The texts by Kant were considered too old to justify even a vista.”

As I quote these lines, I have to stop and ask myself whether my generation can even recognize the names of Kant or Marx. How many of us could write five sentences on why they matter? One sentence?

That’s how out of touch we are with the ideas of the past.

How did this happen?


Why Study History?

I think school is, in part, to blame. History classes were an endless stream of dates and names to be memorized. Teachers never tried to situate events within modern contexts or to teach us the value of studying history.

In high school, I remember listening to our history teacher drone on about Republicans and Democrats. Listening sleepily, I remember wondering what those fancy words meant. Yes, I managed to graduate with good grades from one of the top schools in the country, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between the left the right.

So why should we study history? What should teachers tell their students? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but Eco shares three:

  • To avoid repeating past errors: “…it is important to know also the history of past errors in order to avoid them … in order to understand Copernicus it is crucial to know why Ptolemy was wrong, since Copernicus did not start from nothing but he started by criticizing the ideas of Ptolemy.”
  • Avoid re-inventing hot water: “…to ignore the history of ancient philosophy, or of any other discipline, can help us not to invent (as we say in Italian) the hot water, and there are many contemporary scholars who waste their intelligence in rediscovering by useless efforts ideas that were expressed very clearly by an ancient thinker.”
  • Master life: “…the old dictum historia magistra vitae (history is the master of life) is more serious than it is commonly believed because, if Hitler had read the something on Napoleon (or at least Tolstoy’s War and Peace) he would have understood that it is pretty difficult for an army to reach Moscow before the arrival of winter — and if Bush had read documented historical narrations about the British and Russian attempt to win a war in Afghanistan in the 19th century, he would have suspected that that country presents many orographic and social features that make very difficult to submit its territory.”

Eco’s third reason reminds me of a passage from the military historian Liddell Hart who, in Why Don’t We Learn From History? mentions that a number of students of history “predicted” (I use the word with a heavy heart) the events of World War I:

“The main developments that took the General Staffs by surprise in World War I could have been deduced from a study of the successive preceding wars in the previous half century. Why were they not deduced? Partly because the General Staffs’ study was too narrow, partly because they were blinded by their own professional interests and sentiments. But the “surprising” developments were correctly deduced from those earlier wars by certain non-official students of war who were able to think with detachment — such as M. Bloch, the Polish banker, and Captain Mayer, the French military writer.”

For those cynics that ask, “Well the war happened anyway so what’s the point of studying history?” I suggest you stop and consider this. What of all the events that were prevented because courageous people who studied the past (say, Winston Churchill) were willing to act before it was too late?

What would our world look like without them?


What Happens When We Forget

It’s hard to appreciate how much the past shapes our present. Perhaps this is because we don’t (and can’t) see how our everyday actions are tied up in a web of causes, stories, beliefs and speculations that reach backwards through time.

Umberto Eco calls this our collective memory:

“The problem that comes into play is that no culture (in the anthropological sense of the world, as a system of scientific and artistic ideas, myths, religions, values and everyday customs) can subsist and survive without a collective memory. Societies have always relied on memory in order to preserve their own identity, beginning with the old man who, seating under a tree, told stories about the exploits of his ancestors and the founding myth of the tribe. And when some act of censorship wipes out a section of a society’s memory, this society undergoes an identity crisis.”

To imagine an identity crisis, think of a man who, happily married for 20 years, comes home to a note from his wife that says, “I’ve never loved you and I’m leaving you and our children for Rodrigo, my Brazilian boyfriend of 19 years.” That’s an identity crisis — the very axioms of your entire world view are torn out and apart from you. Chaos.

Imagine that, but with millions of people at the same time.

Hundreds of millions of people were killed outside of war under Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Records were erased, books burned — all in an attempt to replace this collective memory in the service of crazy ideologies.

History is no joke, and people who deal in it are playing with some very, very dangerous fire.

How did I ever think of it as boring?


SparkNotes of SparkNotes of SparkNotes

Now, one last point on the merits of history.

I used to discard the past as old and useless. Why, I thought, bother with the old when we, the moderns, are so advanced? Why sift through the dust when we have the future to worry about?

Yes, most of what we produced in the past is irrelevant, out of date, useless. But that’s not what we care about. We care about what survived. What time does is, on average (again, I said on average) filter out those ideas that are useless and preserve those that are adaptive. So, when we talk about learning from history, we are talking about thousands of years (hundreds of thousands, if you think about ritual and myth) of wisdom, distilled to its essence.

That’s like getting the SparkNotes of the SparkNotes of the SparkNotes — except much better written. Who would say no to that?

The fact that, despite nearly two decades of schooling, I missed this stunningly obvious truth is a testament to the quality of history education today.

To close, let me share a passage from the great essayist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In Dinosaur in a Haystack, he writes:

“Distillation may be biased, but anything that endures for hundreds of thousands of years (at least in part by voluntary enjoyment than forced study) must contain something of value. …without some common mooring, we cannot talk to each other. And if we cannot talk, we cannot bargain, compromise and understand. I am sad that I can no longer cite the most common lines from Shakespeare or the Bible in class, and hold any hope for majority recognition. I am troubled that the primary lingua franca of shared culture may now be rock music of the last decade — not because I regard the genre as inherently unworthy, but because I know that the language will soon change and therefore sow more barriers to intelligibility across generations. I am worried that people with inadequate knowledge of the history and literature of their culture will ultimately become entirely self-referential, like science fiction’s most telling symbol — the happy fool who lives in the one-dimensional world of pointland, and thinks he knows everything because he forms his entire universe.”

Without what Churchill called “history with its flickering lamp,” my great fear is that we are doomed to walk with our eyes pointed down to our navels, forever drawing circles in the dark…

But what do I know? I’m just trying to make a little sense out of the world.

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