"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain a child always."
Soon after Remembrance Day, it's easy to start forgetting again—and I'm not just talking about war. In fact, it's usually during this time of year that I'm reminded that many students' historical consciousness begins and ends with World War Two, that unforgettable pockmark on the 20th century. This means, depending on whom you ask, many minds only stretch back between 10 to 150 years ago. If you look at some of the data around the historical illiteracy of students today, it might seem that a collective, cultural amnesia is no longer some dreadful thing on the horizon—it's here. Our concern for "now-here-this" is cutting that which tethers us to the past, and sets us adrift.
How did this come to be? Of course there are no simple answers, but the latest big push in education in recent years has revolved around critical literacy, which is the ability to approach "texts" from multiple, discerning angles. Such a focus is a good thing, but if the ability to read well is not joined to something worth reading, it is like learning how to navigate a map, but never leaving your home. Perhaps you'll never be lost, but you'll also never really know where you are.
Being cut off from your spatial context is similar to being cut off from your temporal context, and such a free-floating idealism is troublesome. T.S. Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," a landmark of modernist thought, conceived of our "historical sense" in spatial terms. He writes:
[T]he historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.
And of course this should apply to more than the poets. All of us would do well to know the past, and experience its claims upon the present. This would involve not only steeping ourselves in historical chronology, but also growing in awareness that whether in war or in peace, others have tread here before. World War Two has its idiosyncrasies, but it also echoes Carthage and the War of the Roses. To visit Washington, D.C. is to feel the presence of those other once-glorious capitals of Empire: London, Vienna, Alexandria, Athens, and Jerusalem. Indeed, to truly experience our tradition moves us into a true re-membering: making the dead members of the living community once again.
Such remembering is not simply nostalgia, nor is it simply a call to erase difference by realizing archetypal patterns. A friend recently reminded me of another great work on tradition, also from the early 20th century: Orthodoxy (1908). In his chapter "The Ethics of Elfland," G.K. Chesterton argues that we should not attempt to escape the claims of the dead; rather, we should realize that we exist in a democracy of the dead:
Tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. [. . .] If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men [and women] in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
Of course, we live in a modern age, one filled (to borrow from C.S. Lewis) with chronological snobbery; that is, one that loves the present over and against the tradition. Yet to really love the modern is to love the new and original, and we can only be truly original if we know what our origins are. While we take time to re-member the war-dead on the 11th of November, we should also re-member that whole host of witnesses—those in war and those in peace, those who tore down and those who built up—whose voices echo in the conversations we have and the institutions we build.