ABOUTORABI: The hubris of modernity

Whether by design or by accident, two of last Thursday’s guest columns (“Words for a new age” and “New colleges, fresh names,” Sept. 8) offered striking examples of the same peculiarly modern sentiment: the contempt of the past. In the left-hand column, Scott Stern proposed that the two new residential colleges be named after figures outside the traditional pool of “dead white males,” while the middle of the page was given to Jonathan Silverstone’s agitated complaint that our political leaders rely too much on rhetorical appeals to the personalities and ideals of times gone by.

A point-by-point rebuttal of these columnists’ specific claims would be tedious. It need hardly be pointed out that the Elis most worthy of the new colleges are, in point of fact, deceased males mostly of Caucasian descent, or that William Howard Taft’s contributions were more conspicuous than those of Sonia Sotomayor have hitherto been. It goes without saying that a recycled piece of economic rhetoric from the Reagan era, a mere 30 years ago, is not so hopelessly superannuated as to warrant Mr. Silverstone’s condescension.

What is more interesting is to take a hard look at the assumptions underlying these conclusions. In Stern’s and Silverstone’s eyes, the past is dead. We live in an age transformed, the world made over by the dynamic forces of technology, trade, globalization and multiculturalism. In the midst of our modern problems, there are no verities of human nature or human values to which we can turn for guidance. To look for answers in tradition, or in the events, thoughts or sayings of the past, is only to fetishize antiquity.

This manner of thinking, of course, is not unusual. On the contrary, it is pervasive. We are constantly being made aware that “innovation” is the wave of the future, the only hope for an ailing world. “Radical” and “revolutionary,” once the ghastliest words in the political vocabulary, are usually now unqualified terms of praise. “Newness,” not excellence, is increasingly the criterion of success in every endeavor, particularly in art and literature, but not there alone, as Mr. Silverstone’s arguments demonstrate. The last presidential election was won by a single word: “change.”

Yale’s undergraduate curriculum evinces the same attitude toward the past, an attitude of alternating disdain and disregard. It would be remarkable, were we not inured to it, that Yale does not require its undergrads to take a single history course during their four years of study. In Yale’s opinion, whatever history students may have gathered in high school is assumed to be sufficient knowledge for a graduate of one of the world’s most prestigious (and allegedly rigorous) universities. The “Humanities” distributional requirement, which students who are so inclined may fulfill with a history course, may just as well be satisfied by a course in basic drawing. Even history majors, it should be noted, need only take two courses in pre-industrial history, the history of the whole world up to the 19th century.

There are several objections to this modern hubris, this obsession with the present and future at the expense of the past. The first objection is aesthetic. To dismiss the accumulated centuries of human experience — to declare independence from history — is to disrupt the rich interwoven tapestry of human existence, from which we derive nearly all that we are. The second objection is moral. Such a supercilious indifference toward history can only belie an unattractive and inexcusable arrogance, which is far likelier to bind us to our own narrow, parochial viewpoints than to free us from the prejudices of the past. As Burke wrote, “a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper, and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

The last objection is intellectual. By spurning the monuments of the past, we rob ourselves of our best means for understanding the present. Unfashionable as it may be to assert, human nature is a constant; only the circumstances of human life change, not the substance. This truth is even applicable to politics. No one who has read Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War will be surprised by the capriciousness of democracies. No one who has studied the Augustinian-Pelagian debate on original sin will be caught off guard by man’s inhumanity to man.

Our age is caught in an ironic dilemma. We lack the understanding to solve our modern problems — and we know it — but we are too ignorant to know where to look for answers, or too proud to look there. And so we plod on credulously, mouthing platitudes about the need for progressive thinking, confident in our ability to bring riches out of our self-inflicted poverty.

Bijan Aboutorabi is a junior in Trumbull College.


  • The Anti-Yale

    *William Howard Taft’s contributions*

    The former Yale Faculty Club (when I was a boy) had a table with a large semi-circle cut out of one of its edges so that the rotund William Howard Taft could belly up to it. Doeas anyone know what has become of this piece of Yale exotica? Similarly, Woolsey Hall had two seats with the middle arms removed so that Professor Taft could sit comfortably. Are they still there?

  • ldffly

    A nice piece.

    I am startled that Yale is now so loose with history requirements. Once more, I’m depressed at what I hear about the place. I hope most of the undergraduates know better than to leave college with such limited exposure to pre 19th century studies.

  • claypoint2

    A kick @ss piece.

    What can I say? You are right.

  • gzuckier

    Hubris indeed. It represents an inability to empathize with those of other places and times, and a conviction that we nowadays are so much superior that we cannot be prone to the same kind of errors; and that had we only lived in those times and places, we would have not made the same time of errors then. In short, the fallacy of our exceptionalism.

  • grumpyalum

    While I do find the general lack of historical knowledge quite problematic (I consider myself a socialist and you’ll find few greater advocates for an intense reading of history), you delude yourself highly by the rantings implying a sort of nostalgia and primacy of the past as a way to live the current.

    It all runs up high of a sort of privilege, a selective reading of the past as a series of moral tales meant for present consumption. Students of history, particularly conservatives, are fond of the great traditional texts of learning, yet seem unable to disentangle themselves from the myriad of it’s complications.

    You don’t get Plato without natural slavery; or the Roman Empire without its absurdities and cruelties. You don’t get to glorify traditional living without massive oppression of anyone that was not a landed-male.

    In truth, the greatest attacks on History and to the perception of History are done by those who obsess about History but cannot seem to come with anything other than subtle (or sometimes outright) celebration of that life and of sorrow that we don’t live in similar ways or develop similar behaviors to them.

    You can’t escape context and the modern Historical conservative quite often falls into that trap – you don’t get to celebrate the past and ignore it’s failings. More importantly, you shouldn’t wonder why it’s unpopular to pronounce the supremacy of how people were in the past or that there are patterns of behavior to emulate when those have deep and abiding consequences for people who were the subjects of mass oppression by their landed-male-elites.

    In short, the hubris almost seems as if it’s on you – as if we’re doomed to live only by selected patterns that existed in the past. However, it is still sad that many members of the modern age consider themselves to enlightened to ever perhaps learn of the context of their times. History matters. History taught properly matters. History learned properly matters.

    All of this strikes me a little like the libertarians exclaiming that we were much freer in the past in the United States – forgetting the existence of slavery. It wonders why it is not a popular society outside of a very particular demographic.

  • Jerry

    Right on, grumpyalum!

    The arguments of this article rely disturbingly heavily on an intensely privileged reading of history. Ever consider that there are pernicious, systematic reasons why “dead white males” flood the top of the shortlist for new residential college names? Ever consider that maybe Reagan’s oh-so-recent economic rhetoric didn’t even mean anything at the time for the millions of socioeconomically unprivileged? I’ll study history, but I’ll also take it with a salt mine of salt. By and large, I don’t particularly mind if history is a dwindling field – it’s that much less risk that somebody is deluded into thinking that there really were good old days.

  • grumpyalum

    @Jerry – Your cheerleading misses the point. As a progressive, History is a tool we can and must use to effectively create arguments. It also provides context to our lives. Without it, we becomes the worst of conservative parodies, completely uninterested in how we’ve gotten to this point, only that we ‘go forward’.

    History doesn’t have to be simply Directed Studies and Donald Kagan (though when Prof. Kagan focuses solely on Greece, rather than on sloppy metaphors that lean heavy on the neo-conservative side, he is magnificent). Howard Zinn isn’t the only marker of what we can do with History on the Left!

  • Jerry

    On this point, then, we will have to respectfully disagree. History, while certainly interesting and at times potentially useful in contextualizing our understanding of the world, is not a particularly powerful tool. I know that this belief will draw torrents of disagreement and even derision, but I want to put it out there that all of the arguments in favor of history’s power – epitomized by lines like “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” – are, in my opinion, senselessly cryptic at best and suspiciously self serving. It seems telling that no matter how much value we place in history and historical analysis, we see patterns like war and economic booms and busts repeat anyway.

  • The Anti-Yale

    About every 50 years there’s a major war, as if the Collective Unconscious thirsts for a blood offering of first sons (and recently, daughters) in a kind of reminder of the paschal sacrifice. Why are humans the only mammals who make war?

  • The Anti-Yale