Recalling yesterdayto illuminate today

Nothing symbolizes an optimistic beginning and the prospect of a fresh start quite like a new calendar tacked to the wall or neatly placed on a desk. All those pristine pages, just waiting for the unknown future to unfold and fill in the blanks, day by day!

When the new year marks the beginning of a new millennium, as 2001 does, the future holds even more interest. Journalists' year-end retrospectives, looking back on 365 yesterdays, have their fleeting appeal. But in an age when Americans' collective attention span grows shorter and shorter, it is the prospect of all those tomorrows that captures attention. The predictions of futurists, staring into cloudy crystal balls, offer more intrigue than the perspectives of historians, analyzing the dusty past.

"History?" future-lovers ask dismissively. "Bor-ing."

Stephen Bertman, an educational consultant, calls the problem "cultural amnesia." Writing in the January-February 2001 issue of The Futurist, he warns about what he calls a national "crisis of memory." He calls Americans "abysmally ignorant," not only about long-ago events in faraway places, but even about events occurring just a few years ago in their own country.

In school, history has been renamed social studies, a vague

term that seems more focused on the present than on the past. One recent study exposes American high school students' dim grasp of history.

But rather than simply blaming the educational system for this national forgetfulness, Professor Bertman points to other culprits that undermine the "value of remembering" for everyone. These include the newness of the country, the lure of materialism, and the accelerating power of technology.

"No wonder the past has receded from our thought," Bertman states. "We have little time for it since our lives move so fast." When things move too fast, people lose perspective on their priorities as they frantically strive to keep up.

These pressures of high-speed living also contribute to fissures in the structure of the family. That, in turn, leaves people "without humanity's prime transmitter of tradition and ancestral values."

In its largest context, Bertman argues, this historical forgetfulness poses a danger to democracy by fostering "an ignorance of the historic sacrifices that make these freedoms possible."

But democracy isn't the only potential loser. In smaller ways, a failure to understand the past can have consequences for individuals and families as well.

Those of us who never went through the Depression, for instance, cannot fully comprehend the deprivation it wrought. But anyone who paid attention in history class can understand, to a degree, why parents and grandparents who remember lean years retain vestiges of frugality. Older generations can only watch in sad amazement as younger generations, who have grown up in prosperity, max out credit cards and spend as though the boom will never end.

A sense of history - or a lack of it - can also affect companies. As the pace of business quickens, as employees come and go, corporate histories risk getting diminished as well. Every time a long-term employee walks out the door, a bit of institutional memory disappears, too. Yet knowing where a business has come from can help in charting a successful path for where it wants to go.

Preserving a sense of where we have come from, individually and collectively, doesn't mean dwelling on the past or trying to preserve earlier eras under glass. As new calendars replace old ones next Monday, it may be a good time to combine optimism and hope for the future with renewed respect for the past. January is, after all, named after Janus, the Roman god who looks both forward and backward.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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