Forgetting History - Paying the Price

I've been reading a lot of material written in the late 19th and 20th Centuries for the past several years. This hasn't been deliberate, but various sub-interests have just had their heyday then.

One of these threads has been the popularity of tales of the self-made man (commonly called Horatio Alger stories) that were in vogue during the first golden age. Men like Carnegie and Rockefeller inspired a lot of fictional versions. Most had one of two points of view, the superficial one was that hard work and "pluck" led to wealth and success. The other, darker one, was that wealth was a false goal and true success was to be found in helping one's fellow man. Sometimes the hero discovered this late in life, other times he died unenlightened.

More recently, I've been reading many accounts of the struggles of oppressed groups to gain their rights. So far this has fallen into three classes: blacks in the US, Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe and workers in industrialized nations (mostly the US and England).

There were a large number of very talented people writing on the inequalities of the time and much of what they had to say still makes sense today. Some of the groups may be different (although workers, Jews and blacks are still under pressure), but the appeals still resonate.

Which brings me to my point. The insights that these people had are all but forgotten. Sometimes a contemporary writer will bring up the same points, but in many cases their writing is not as well formed as the earlier writers.

Where do we strike a balance? We can't have all discussion reference works of the past. The traditional gentleman's education was filled with the works of the Greeks and Romans and led to unimaginative functionaries more concerned with their place in society than in progress.

On the other hand, tossing everything overboard means that the lessons learned from many mistakes of the past have to be relearned. Sometimes they aren't, or aren't in time and much unnecessary suffering happens. Upton Sinclair revealed the problems with the meat packing industry 100 years ago. Those lessons have been forgotten or deliberately suppressed and the US is experiencing a rash of tainted meat (again!) as a result.

The area that concerns me right now is the lessons that where learned when labor organized. Not only did working conditions improve for the employees, but firms were forced to become more responsible in other ways as well. The net result was a rise in the average standard of living, improvements in the quality of products and better protection for investors as well. Not all of these changes were due to worker's direct actions, but a strong labor sector had an influence on legislators and "progressive" laws and regulations were created as a result.

Now we have massive financial fraud, inferior products from unregulated foreign suppliers, abuse of local workers and a host of other, entirely predictable, ills. All of these could have been avoided if history had only been heeded.

In the past the human race had the possibility to pick itself up and start again even after the distructions of all out war. But that was before we started to face issues of resource limitations, overpopulation and uncontrolled climate change. Repeating past mistakes may not be fixable next time.

How do we ensure that we learn from the past?

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Copyright © 2008 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.