Most of us learn -- eventually -- from experience. That's the hard way. We'd avoid a lot of pain if we learned more from the experience of others.
To learn from the experience of others is the reason we study history. But history isn't taught much any more in our public schools, or in our colleges and universities. It shows.
History doesn't ever repeat itself, exactly. But as Mark Twain noted, it rhymes. History rhymes because people the world over are more like than unlike each other, and because people haven't changed all that much over the millennia. We have the same virtues and the same vices as the ancient Greeks and Romans. The same passions motivate us. So we make essentially the same mistakes, over and over again.
In an earlier column, I mentioned my favorite poem, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," by my favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling. To those who don't study history, it must seem eerie how, writing in 1919, Kipling captured the essence of the Obama administration.
British schoolchildren in Kipling's day practiced penmanship in copybooks. The pages were blank, except for a maxim or proverb at the top, such as "honesty is the best policy," or "a penny saved is a penny earned," written in perfect handwriting, which students were expected to copy over and over. These were the copybook headings.
"We were living in trees when they met us," Kipling said of the Gods of the Copybook Headings. "They showed us each in turn that water would certainly wet us, as fire would certainly burn: But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind, so we left them to teach the gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind."
"All is not gold that glitters, and two and two make four," the Gods of the Copybook Headings tell us. But as in ages past, people would rather believe in a "brave new world" in which "all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins." So we'll follow, for a time, the "smooth-tongued wizards" who promise wealth without work, safety without vigilance, sex without consequences.
The trail President Barack Obama thinks he's blazing is in fact well worn. Many have trod it before, to their sorrow. It is new and "progressive" only to those who pay no attention to the lessons history teaches.
The president's economic policies have produced high unemployment, skyrocketing debt, stagnation and recession. Kipling wouldn't have been surprised:
"In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all, by robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul; but though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy, and the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'If you don't work you die.'"
Nor would he be astonished to learn more violence has followed Mr. Obama's "peace" initiatives in the Middle East:
"When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace. They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease. But when we disarmed they sold us and delivered us bound to our foe, and the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'Stick to the Devil you know.'"
"Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it," said the great British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797). He warned of the chaos that would descend upon France when revolutionaries there thought they could alter human nature by fiat. They couldn't. Neither could all the others who've tried before us. Neither can we.
Americans of this generation have been unwilling to heed the experience of others, so we're about to learn bitter lessons from our own experience. Periodically, people try to dismiss them. But always, "the Gods of the Copybook Headings, with terror and slaughter return."jackkelly
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/