By Bob Houghtaling

Last week I wrote an article extolling the value of philosophy and how schools would be so much safer if we hired more philosophers to help with life’s big issues. For this article I am hoping to highlight the importance of history, as both a subject and means for perpetuating our culture/traditions. Like philosophy, history is often considered soft (or just a collection of dates). Hopefully, by placing some emphasis on history, we might just come to remember the importance of learning about our past.

History teaches us where we came from. All Americans can recite the story of how Columbus sailed across the ocean with three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Andrea Doria. From there a New World would open up. After enslaving a few Africans, and killing some Indians, America became a place to inhabit and establish religious tolerance. Soon Cortez, Rocky Balboa, and countless others, would risk the high seas to establish new colonies. Every child clearly knows this.

Sure, from time to time, it could get rough, but eventually colonies became thriving states. Ted Williams would establish Rhode Island. James Oglethorpe would help create Georgia, and Penn and Teller would work to create Pennsylvania (along with Quaker Oats Cereal). These brave individuals formed the basis for our way of life. History also tells us that the American Revolution served as the template for today’s United States. Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Carver, Gomez Addams and Alexander Hamilton all played vital roles in helping to form a new nation. Where would we be if it weren’t for all of those who stood tall against the British Umpire?

Without being taught history, Americans would never know that Manifold Destiny propelled us to expand our nation’s borders. Without history we would not know that Lincoln freed the slaves, Douglas Fairbanks rose from harsh servitude to great success speaking on behalf of Black Americans, and that America would soon become the “great smelting pot.”

From time to time we would be challenged. Franklin Roosevelt would have to roll up San Juan Hill to win the Spanish American War. Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and others would etch their names on the scrolls of history. We can never forget the importance of Richard Nixon teaching us about the value of special prosecutors. On top of this, great strides would be made on behalf of minorities and women along the way. Martin Luther, Rosa Parks, Christa McAuliffe, Barack Obama (the first Muslim president), Jim Thorpe, Colin Powell and Georgia O’Keeffe are but a few of those worth mentioning. One of the nation’s proudest moments was when Sugar Ray Robinson broke the sound barrier in 1947. This along with Louis Armstrong landing on the moon are accomplishments all Americans can be proud of.  

The point I am trying to make here is that learning history is important. It tells us where we have been. It can also help create a sense of culture and community. We can learn from the past and use this knowledge to build upon. When we forget our past a sense of mooring is lost. Surely we do not desire to live in yesterday – but tomorrow will be better for understanding the contribution of our forebears.

George Santayana once stated that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While many parents might not want their sons, or daughters to run off and become historians (or philosophers) encouraging them to develop an inquisitive appreciation for critical thinking, the past, and a sense of purpose might make life’s journey a little more meaningful.

Nations are kept together by communication, a sense of commonality and the ability to evolve. America is unique that way. We have plenty of problems, but possess the enormous capacity for change. When we are open to honest discussion, and reflection, growth can ensue. Our present days might be filled with questions that challenge, but by considering the past we might learn just how those of yesterday handled the tribulations at hand. While we might not be able to place a philosopher (like I called for last week) in all our schools, promoting the importance of history and civics could be a viable substitute. Intellectual ambivalence now calls for alternate facts and questioning the definition of “is.” We have to be able to discern the foolish from the factual.

As I attempt to highlight the importance of relationships, reflection and critical thinking, the importance of science and technology cannot be minimized. In addition, no pretense is being made that Philosophy and History are going to solve gun violence and other societal maladies by themselves. With this being stated, I do feel that enhancing culture, promoting a sense of community, and creating reasons for pride, are important for society to thrive.

With tongue-in-cheek these words are penned, but still with subtle truth. While often complex, the world’s concerns, at core, often contain fear, misinformation, greed and the survival instinct. Understanding, developing trust, cooperation, and a belief in something greater than the perfunctory, should all be factored into potential solutions. Philosophy and history give us the how’s and why’s that lead to our what’s. In essence they ask us to examine the human condition.

Just a thought.

Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program.