What’s So Useful About Studying Ancient History?Historians in the News
tags: education, history, ancient history
Barry Strauss is Professor of History and Classics, Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, and author of TEN CAESARS: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Simon & Schuster).
The news is full of items about Americans’ ignorance of history. A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, for example, finds that only four in 10 American adults have a basic understanding of U.S. history. New Marine recruits in boot camp, meanwhile, have no memory of the events of 9/11—indeed, some were not yet born in September 2001. To learn about those events, which might cause them to risk their lives, they are required to take a history class. As the last Holocaust survivors die out, to turn to another example, worries mount about who will tell their story.
Yet relative ignorance of history is nothing new in America. From the start, America’s habits have been those of youth: our people have always been ambitious, restless, and on the move. Waves of immigrants and constant technological revolutions keep the country eternally young. And so, Americans scorn history. But they shouldn’t.
While it was an American, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” seven years after making this remark in 1905, he returned to his native Europe, where he spent the last four decades of his life. And for every George Santayana in the USA, there are a thousand Henry Ford’s saying that “History is more or less bunk.”
It wasn’t always this way. The Founders read ancient history and were inspired by it as they imagined a new and independent America. Perhaps because they were born thinking of themselves as Englishmen, they always had an eye on the lessons of the past. They focused on antiquity, a repository of republics like the one they wanted to create. Sam Adams expressed the wish that America be a Christian Sparta, but he was an outlier. It was Rome that fascinated the Founders.
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