The Inadequacy of History

imageFive years ago I was playing Tetris with six-pound packs of Angus burgers, cartons of eggs, and other oddly shaped foodstuffs, packing them onto a cart for work.

My coworker, whom I had endearingly named “Smoothie Girl,” stood just outside the walk-in cooler. We cloaked flirtations in the guise of casual conversation as I checked off items from my long list. Once all the food was loaded up, I wheeled it out and headed back upstairs to the kitchen. Smoothie Girl followed.

It had been a while since I left, and my supervisor, the head line cook, questioned me upon my return: “What took you so long? Were you talking to her?”

“I was talkin’ with her while I was gettin’ all this stuff.”

“No you weren’t. I’ve worked here fifteen years — nobody talks down there while they work.”

“Well, nice to meet you — my name is Ryan. I can talk while I work.

This same issue surfaced during my tenure as an international officer of Phi Theta Kappa. I held myself to a certain standard that stood in contrast with some people’s views concerning politicians/power holders. The danger of such phrases as “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that it smears emerging leaders before they can set new standards.

Hindsight is useful for many enterprises: One thing science does is looks to what is and what was in an effort to make future predictions. Inductive logic reasons that because the Sun has “risen” every day from time immemorial, it will most likely rise tomorrow morning. The same goes for studies in psychology when using past behavior to predict future behavior. Perhaps the head line cook was something of a psychologist.

But psychology is a soft science, laden with problems too innumerable to discuss here. And I am personally of the persuasion that human behavior is not outright deterministic; that is to say, although inundated with a bevy of external and internal constraints upon behavior, we nevertheless possess the capacity to exert our own will within these constraints.

imageSome people think that because a piece of paper has limits, we aren’t free to paint, draw, or type whatever we want within it. And although your life is a single page whose border is death, and whose material only affords certain types of modifications, you are free color it in and live as you please.

When it comes to history, whose eye is fixed solely upon the past, there are two serious concerns: First, remembering the minutiae of who crested what hill at what hour upon what foreign land in the name of what nation for the cause of which ideal is a nigh impossible feat to memorize, let alone find useful to daily life.

And most education is like history: here’s what is and what was. Now, continue the pattern.’

The second concern, from a philosophic standpoint, is the inadequacy of forming weatherproof generalizations concerning human behavior by studying history. Just because our predecessors thought a certain way, or instituted certain sociopolitical systems does not mean we can’t rethink and wipe the slate clean. Just because an historic analysis might show that indeed, absolute power corrupts absolutely, it does not necessitate the same behavior in people moving forward.

Philosophy is often also itself retrospective or focused on what is. I find this egregiously narrow. Who wants to philosophize about what was? About what is? There is more future than past, and I’d rather look forward then back. When it comes to human behavior, when it comes to future possibilities, I want my outlook to be as broad as possible — not limited to prior successes and failures.

History has been my least favorite subject — at least until my thirteenth year in the educational system, when a novel-thinking professor decided that studies based on how people thought (as revealed through their writings) in prior ages was better for understanding history than mere memorization of names and dates. So even this aversion to history has changed in me. Yet this only reinforces the belief that what was is inadequate for determining what could be.

As history is a collection of individual actions, my focus here is on individual efforts to write their own lives. “X is something that people just don’t do” is meaningless and offensive to human potential.

Life is like a song, and where some are content to repeat the chorus, I want to write a new verse.

I think.