Although it may not be obvious, history marks us as hopelessly shortsighted. As a species we’ve only been keeping written records for about four millennia. History, as we know it—without the intervention of gods—is an even more recent phenomenon. Since living a century is a rarity (although becoming more common), a hundred years seems like a very long time. Our lives spin out over a brief span of active decades until we run out of energy and let others make the important decisions. We hope, against hope, that they will have learned from our collective mistakes. Learning isn’t always our strong suit as a species. In just one century we forget and arrogantly refuse to read our history.
One hundred years ago the War To End All Wars ended. World War One was a slaughter on a scale unimaginable, involving nations around the world distrusting each other and hating one another enough to threaten all the advances of millennia of civilization. When the war was over we thought we’d seen the last of conflict. Two decades later it started all over again and the Second World War wiped out millions of lives. The aggressors, known collectively as fascists, were strong nationalists, believing in racial superiority and privileged rights for those in power. When that war ended, just about seven decades ago, a stunned world took little for granted beyond the awareness that fascism was, at least, gone for good.
Today we stand on the brink of a chasm that spans one century. Fascists are in power in the United States and elsewhere. International tensions are running high and the “leader of the free world” openly eschews reading history. Protests against the war in Vietnam were largely prompted by the real-time coverage on television. Now we have a world-wide web, but no basis for truth beyond the tweets of madmen. For many people the decade-and-a-half that they spend in school seems a long time. We used to believe that it took that long to learn what our restless youth need to survive in a complex society. We teach them, among other things, history. The need to learn from our past is perhaps even more important than technology. My generation of academics, reaching over half-a-century now for many of us, has been taught that lifelong learning is the value we must instill in students. Given that we’ve collectively had a century to learn, and that we’re still edging toward the same collapsing precipice, a hundred years seems not nearly long enough.