Thursday, September 10, 2009

History Lesson

This popped into my head
Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

Turns out it goes like this.
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
and it is from George Santayana. An Italian philosopher and writer who is considered an American "man of letters".

The quote given on wikipedia is
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,"[1] (sometimes called Santayana's Law of Repetitive Consequences)

Ok, it seems there are many ways to phrase and mis-phrase this aphorism, but they all get at the notion that we should study the errors in history and learn from them. Right? Is that not what we did in grade school? Study the wars, the conquest, the Holocaust, the Reformation, the .... You get the picture. Well, that indeed was history class for me (you can contrast this with your own educational background). There were other classes in the Social Studies area, where one would look at how the government works or economics, but history's lessons are, the things that we should not repeat.

Now I ask, have you ever taken a music or art history class? All that you look at are success stories. You study it so that you are not doomed to repeat it? No, you study it to learn why and how it is great. Fine. But what about the failures? Why not study these and why they do not work? If you have taken a class in counterpoint or some other compositional discipline you will recognize that when it comes to critique of your student work and deciding the merit of the work, that is left to the teacher and it is hoped that in the process you learn the pitfalls of your ways and construct your own ability to critique your future students. If you are lucky, you find a way to do this.

In reality, one of the most important skills that any artist can learn is that of critical analysis. Not an analysis of how a great piece works, but rather, why a section or component is not working. Why and where failures occur, that is what we strive to avoid repeating, but we hope that by surrounding ourselves with success we will find ways to make our own versions of it.

Of course, lurking in the notion of studying failures (war, conquest etc.), we are on some level celebrating these things. Indeed, there is an aspect of greatness in overcoming Hitler or Napoleon or rising against the British so as to avoid paying taxes. But with this truth also comes the admission that our means of achieving these goals are quite despicable. Yet, we study them as great works. One quickly jumps at the notion of our having surpassed such barbaric means of enslaving other people, yet with any small degree of reflection one soon recognizes that the imperial forces that sustain the Developed Worlds reign are certainly just as barbaric, if not in a more discrete fashion.

And so I am left with the question, if you teach people the failures, will they learn how and why not to repeat them? Or is one better off to teach success stories and hope that we aspire to those pillars? Certainly it is not an either or, but lurking below the surface, each of these methods has downfalls, might we not consider a middle ground?


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