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.