Tuesday

June 27th, 2017

Insight

The past is the present

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published March 11, 2015

    The past is the present

The past is never dead. It's not even past.--William Faulkner

A friendly critic wants to know why go on and on about historical events when this is supposed to be a column mainly about current events, not past ones. Even though he knows full well that in response he'll get another lecture about the continuing relevance of the past to the present, and why ignoring the connection may result only in replaying past tragedies. Santayana said it: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The three biggest challenges facing American society remain education, education and education. The neglect of the liberal arts today -- like history, foreign languages, the classics and literature in general -- has become the shame of American universities, starting with the most prestigious.

As the rot has spread, inevitably proceeding down the chain of fashion in higher education to a university near you, the core curriculum that once held us together, and gave all of us common points of reference, has dissipated into a smorgasbord of elective courses to suit individual tastes and the ever-changing fashions in academic taste.

Here in Arkansas, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville now offers undergraduates a vast sea of courses to choose from but not the solid footing that a limited, uniform list of required courses once gave students.

As for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, it abolished its whole German program in one arbitrary sweep.

There is a term for this kind of willful ignorance in the name of efficiency and economy. It's Jose Ortega y Gasset's: the barbarism of specialization. So does "higher education" become steadily lower, its object mainly to fill job slots in the state's industries and businesses.

Lost in the ruins of what was liberal education are figures like T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia after a popular film depicted his adventures. His masterpiece, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," still offers the best guide to the Arab mind and spirit, which lies at the root of Islam -- and of Islamic greatness in the past and Islamic terrorism today. To cite just one passage of that still enlightening work:

"Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient servants. None of them would escape the bond till success had come, and with it responsibility and duty and engagements. Then the idea was gone and the work ended -- in ruins. Without a creed they could be taken to the four corners of the world (but not to heaven) by being shown the riches of earth and the pleasures of it; but if on the road, led in this fashion, they met the prophet of an idea, who had nowhere to lay his head and who depended for his food on charity or birds, then they would all leave their wealth for his inspiration.

"They were incorrigibly children of the idea, feckless and color-blind, to whom body and spirit were forever and inevitably opposed. Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardor and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They were a people of starts, for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing. They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.

"Since the dawn of life, in successive waves they had been dashing themselves against the coasts of flesh. Each wave was broken, but, like the sea, wore away ever so little of the granite on which it failed, and some day, ages yet, might roll unchecked over the place where the material world had been, and God would move upon the face of those waters."

Not surprisingly, Colonel/Sheik Lawrence had received a classic liberal education at Oxford -- including exposure to foreign languages, prominent among them Arabic, and would emerge as one of the few military leaders in the First World War and Catastrophe to prove an original thinker and effective strategist.

Not for Lawrence the muddy trenches and eternal stalemate of the mass slaughter on the Western front. For he had become an Arab himself, and would strike when and where least expected, materializing out of the desert with his followers to descend on his objective from a direction that would never occur to the hopelessly conventional military mind. As when he fell upon Aqaba, its siege guns pointed out to sea rather than at the treeless wastes from which Lawrence struck. Why bother to defend the city against an attack from that direction? It was impossible to take Aqaba that way -- until Lawrence did it.

If you're looking for another example of prophetic insight, consider the now all but forgotten Sir James Hedlam-Morley, whose official title in the British Foreign Office was historical adviser.

As early as the 1920s, Sir James was turning out a series of scholarly papers that predicted, with uncanny accuracy, how and where the next world war and even greater catastrophe would unfold. It would start in the East once a resurgent Germany and an old, aggressive Russian empire united against the West. As in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.

Naturally his prophetic warnings were ignored by the isolationists of his time. Just as today's neo-isolationists fail to recognize the danger that Russia's latest tsar represents to NATO and the whole Atlantic alliance. Once again appeasement and procrastination become the West's substitute for an adequate defense. The one thing we learn from the study of history is how little our leaders learn from history.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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