On the Knife’s Edge: America’s Presentism

Aug 4, 2011 by

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. Vergil

America’s greatest problem is not her debt, her trade imbalance, or the environment. The problem is America’s complete a-historicity. We are completely disinterested in our origins unless it is to justify some contemporary ideology. America is entirely presentist in its perspective. Not only do we not think that anything that happened more than fifty years ago is significant but we are actively hostile to anyone who claims that Lee, Washington or John Winthrop for that matter, might have something to say to us today.

At lunch yesterday with two of my college friends we broached this very subject. Joe Philistine is an up and coming member of the local business community. Our mutual friend is Mr. Will Honeycomb, a gentleman of wide reading and much promise. “My young cousin is seventeen,” Joe Philistine remarked. “She was shocked yesterday to discover that the American colonies had their genesis in Britain.”

“She is seventeen?” Will asked. “Surely she must have gone through nearly a dozen thanksgivings at school, making construction paper turkeys and pilgrims with black felt hats a score of times. Where did she think we came from?”

“But that is precisely my point,” Mr. Philistine replied. “It hasn’t harmed her a jot in seventeen years to not know where the Pilgrims originated. And I dare say it shall not advance her pocket book a dollar to know it now.”

America is a forward looking nation. We are loath to look behind us; ever forward, that is who we are. Our Puritan forefathers left the Old World to escape the burden of history. We take no pleasure in knowing the causes that produced us. Our only satisfaction is contemplating the future that awaits us. The National Assessment of Educational Progress noted that only 12 percent of twelfth graders performed at or above the “proficient” level on the 2010 U.S. history assessment.¹ A television show like Blackadder, in Britain, would be impossible in America. Audiences simply would not get the idea of poking fun of figures as distant in time as the Prince Regent and the Duke of Wellington are to British audiences. This would be the equivalent of poking fun at Washington’s aide de camps. And what a great shame that is: Imagine how much material could be had from satirizing the Grant administration.

Our lunch soon broke up with a disagreement on the efficacy of government stimulus in ending the Great Depression and the real causes of the War Between the States. The present, Augustine considers in Book XI of the Confessions, to be “a knifes edge between the past and the future.” To live only in the present is to live on the knife’s edge. The real function of the historian is to see the past and its many participants as they saw themselves. History shows us the sequence of events which have led us to our present situation but it also shows us alternatives. These alternatives are not only those of the past, but show us directions we might still choose. To refuse to see the past on its own terms is to drive into the future without direction.

Differences of historical interpretation are healthy phenomenon. It encourages perception of events and problems from many different angles. But when a nation does not share common basic notions such as the nature and significance of its founding we run the risk of becoming dysfunctionally schizophrenic.

1. http://nationsreportcard.gov/ushistory_2010/summary.asp

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  1. Lot

    Ha Mr. Harris I remember many of these matters being discussed in our class and I found your final point to be quite humorous due to the truth it holds. I believe that part of the nature of this slothfulness is due to the vague emphasis placed upon people through usage of the various available portals of information. The medias depiction of our current situation is very broad and general and as you said, are so in order to fit the agenda or support the ideology of a specific group of people hosting said informational portals. People hear that there is a current economic issue but their own lack of curiosity makes them stop at that rather than attempt to acquire insight regarding the genesis of the issue. Although the potential of the current information highway and technological advancements in the world are quite impressive, the average laymen are overwhelmed by the variation in opinions and perspectives. We are still easing into the rapidly growing vast repository of data we have available at our fingertips, as a nation.

  2. Tim Albrecht

    I agree completely with Jesse and I think many nations of the world share the same problem.

    “America is a forward looking nation. We are loath to look behind us; ever forward, that is who we are.”

    Many nations are afraid to look behind them, into their past for fear of what they might see. America has a past full of great deeds and great horrors. The US Marshal plan generously helped to rebuild Europe after WWII and is merely one example of our great generosity. On the other hand we are also the only nation to have engaged in nuclear warfare (The Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and we also have engaged in biological warfare(giving Native Americans smallpox infested blankets and clothing).

    Some might feel uncomfortable knowing or remembering history, but we cannot learn from what we don’t remember. In order to make for a better future, we should learn from the good and the bad from our past, and be ever cautious not to repeat our past mistakes.

  3. Vince Giglio

    If we feel, which is what we turn these issues into feelings, we can never learn. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable. This is an issue of reasoning. Once we make the distinction between the physical response and the more appropriate intellectual response we can begin to move forward.

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