OP-ED: Why the past matters

Lynne Agress
The Baltimore Sun
FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, former Vice President Dick Cheney looks behind former Secretary of State James Baker as he stands next to former Vice President Dan Quayle, back, during memorial ceremonies for former President George H.W. Bush at the Capitol in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

Although time seems to go much faster as we age, in order to assure the best possible future, it is important to remember — and to learn from — our past. Fortunately, we have many books, films and our own experiences to remind us (if we want to be reminded).

A good example to help us remember is the movie, “Vice,” which was nominated for several Oscars (and won for best makeup). While my contemporaries and I clearly remember Vice President Dick Cheney practically running our country and conspiring to get the U.S. into phony wars, along with opening Guantanamo and advocating torture, young people today need to be reminded of the perils of misinformation.

The old saying “history repeats itself” has been quoted in various forms by many famous people. Perhaps 19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx’s version is most appropriate now: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Think two World Wars, the Holocaust, massive hurricanes, mass shootings, followed by politics of today.

Among the most famous of these history quotations has been attributed to George Santayana, the philosopher and essayist who lived through the first half of the 20th century: Those who cannot remember the past are bound to repeat it. This is why being informed by reading, listening to and learning from experienced experts is essential not only for the average person, but especially for our leaders.

When it comes to surrounding oneself with the best and brightest people in order to learn from them, two former presidents immediately come to mind: Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. Lincoln, upon becoming commander-in-chief, chose his two experienced rivals, Salmon Chase and William Seward, for top Cabinet positions. Similarly, President Kennedy chose Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger and brilliant litigator Ted Sorensen as his senior advisers.

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Regarding the history of civil rights, another recent movie, “The Green Book,” which won three Academy Awards (best picture, supporting acting and original screenplay), demonstrates some of the worst forms of prejudice in the not-too-distant past. Among other things, the movie points out how prejudice is usually a result of stupidity and shows how education can produce positive change. Tolerance, respect, sharing: these values must be protected and enhanced.

When it comes to writing and literature, our past is critical. Sadly, too few young people study Latin today. Latin, an ancient language to be sure, is also the backbone of English. One example among hundreds is caput, head, which gives us cap, capital, capitulate, captain, decapitate and more.

As for literature, there are so many timeless works, beginning with the ancients. Take Shakespeare’s late 16th and early 17th century plays, for instance. Relationships between families, among friends, between lovers, among political figures all resonate today. Just one example among many is “Romeo and Juliet” (which first appeared in the late 1500s), which spawned Maxwell Anderson’s “Winterset” in the 1930s, and “West Side Story” in the 1950s. All feature “star-crossed lovers” from warring backgrounds.

What about historical biographies? Every government leader should be required to read the major presidential biographies, such as those written by David McCullough and Robert Caro.

Regarding medical science, we have made great strides by building on the past and learning in the present for the future. A perfect example of past-to-present evolution is climate change. Once upon a time we had many fewer cars and trucks, buses and trains and planes. And our atmosphere was less polluted. We know now that in addition to gas and oil fumes, that coal causes lung disease and other serious illnesses.

Fortunately, we have scientists and other experts who are discovering energy alternatives, ways to protect our precious environment for future generations. But if leaders refuse to heed their warnings and refuse to pass legislation to protect us, we will go backward and not in a good way.

Thus, we must be willing to learn from the past and apply that knowledge to the present so that 50 years from now both young and old people can be healthy and happy, proud of and grateful for the past.

— Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.”