After the usual twelve years of primary and secondary education, four years of undergraduate and three years of graduate schools (both requiring much study of histories and languages, including ancient ones), countless continuing education courses, and a great deal of reading, one expects to continue on in life with a firm grasp of what has happened until now, why it happened, and how. Standing firmly upon that foundation, one should be able to proceed into life with confidence that it is only the future which is uncertain. (I’m not sure there is ever really a present – it is just a short moment which was once the future and is now the past.) Not so.
Examples of the changed past:
Over the last three decades I have learned that evolution is more like a disheveled shrub than a tree (The Tangled Tree, by David Quammen), with a whole new “branch” sticking out.
I am learning that what I had thought was significant progress in race relations, is not. Joseph J. Ellis in his American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, writes:
“Julius Wilson sounds a distinctive note. His body of work as a sociologist of the black underclass merits extended attention as another way of thinking about our current racial predicament. Wilson first attracted national attention as a young scholar at the University of Chicago with a book whose very title, The Declining Significance of Race, provoked criticism from the black community.
‘When St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton wrote their pioneering study of Chicago, Black Metropolis (1945), a sprinkling of working-class whites and a sizable black middle class coexisted alongside more impoverished black residents. But in the wake of the civil rights movement, these upwardly mobile segments of the urban population escaped to the suburbs, leaving a black underclass marooned in what became the black holes of America’s urban universe.’
“His point, it turned out, was that there was no such thing as a ‘black community,’ because a class division separated middle- and working-class blacks from inner-city blacks. The former were beneficiaries of the civil rights movement and affirmative action programs. The latter were a category unto themselves, mired in zones.”
This goes far toward explaining why American society continues to be so divided, violently so, even without today’s explanations of “tribalism” and what Trump evokes.
Apparently the Universe (this one, at any rate), is older than previously known, and “space” is not so empty now that dark matter and dark energy are confirmed things (Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, and Knocking on Heaven’s Door). Our genetic heritage includes Neanderthals who, in earlier days, were considered decidedly pre- and sub-human, their designation a synonym for stupid, lumbering, and in all ways insufficient. Not the conclusion any more.
Animals are a great deal more intelligent (Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by F.M.B. deWaal; The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, by Peter Wolleben) than we had previously known, as are trees and plants (The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, also by Wolleben).
I used to think of terra firma as reliable firm, solid, something on which I could stand without fear of relocation barring severe winds or a sudden raging river. Lately, it seems, there are sinkholes in many places capable of swallowing whole automobiles and houses.
That wonderful substance chocolate has a terrible history of oppression attached to it (Bitter Chocolate, by Carol Off). Swedish meatballs were invented not by Swedish IDEA, but originated in Istanbul https://www.196flavors.com/sweden-kottbullar-swedish-meatballs/. Abraham Lincoln, far from being the humble figure about whom I had learned, craftily used photography to burnish and spread his image throughout the country (“Photography and Mr. Lincoln,” by Rebecca Gross https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2014/photography-and-mr-lincoln.
Mythos is the foundational belief, upon which we stand as we explain life to ourselves. It is to some extent based upon history, particularly our own living of it, and upon faith (the hope which is validated by our experience so far). When we have not accurately perceived the past, finding or forming a personal or cultural foundational myth is as difficult as being sure of the reliability of the ground upon which we stand. So now I find that I must not only work very hard to learn about what is new, and consider whether to give informed consent to it as part of my framework of reference for my life and Life around me. I must also re-learn some of the past, and consider whether to give informed consent to that as well. Additionally, I must examine the potentials in the future through the lens of a re-worked past. “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” wrote (or said) Edmund Burke. Perhaps this is an impossible expectation.
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