By John Mattingly
In 1965, on the last day of my matriculation year of high school in Australia, our history teacher, a bravely bearded Mr. Chambers, suggested to our class that one of the more interesting – perhaps even more important – things we could do in the next couple of decades was try to figure out our place in the “wide river of history.”
The suggestion didn’t strike me, or most of my mates, as something we had to worry about just then, as most of us were more concerned about the “wide river” of matriculation exams we had to take in a few days. In those days, Australia had only three universities, which meant only a small percentage of high school students qualified for higher learning. There was tremendous pressure to do well on the exam – the dreaded “matric” – a three day, eighteen hour, strictly proctored exam that covered the entire year’s study of English, Calculus, Pure Maths, Chemistry, and History.
Students wore uniforms with their school colors. My school, University High School in Melbourne, wore green and white. Boys and girls had separate common rooms, and separate stairways, lest a boy look up a young girl’s dress as she ascended.
Discipline was fierce. Violations for talking out of turn, smirking at elders, pushing in the hallways, or being tardy to class were punished with either a board to the buttocks, or what were called “yard duties,” which involved picking up every scrap of trash, including spent gum, off the school quadrangle. The school disciplinarian, A.J. Jones, was thought to have spies among us, as often students were summoned to yard duty when they were confident no one had seen them commit an offense.
But perhaps the most unique feature of those days was that teachers in Australian high schools wore black robes and carried themselves like U.S. judges. When a teacher entered the classroom, students stood in silent attention until asked to be seated. Students spoke only when recognized and never argued with a teacher. Mr. Chambers suggestion that we try to figure out our place in the flow of history didn’t make a sudden impression on me, but it did make a lasting one.
After a couple of decades, I could still see Mr. Chambers, standing in front of the class in his black robe, beard down to his collar, suggesting we figure out where we might be in the great, wide river of human events. I found it one of the most useful suggestions I ever got in high school. It made me aware of the significance of context and timing in the success of my actions: doing the right thing at the wrong time was still wrong.
Knowing the historical context in which you act at a particular time is a determinant of success. I know: I’ve done the same thing in two different historical contexts. One time I looked smart, the other stupid. Where you are in the great river of history not only determines your passing scenery, it determines where you can dock and where you need to portage.
The intentional study of history is a peculiarly human endeavor. I have no reason to suspect that members of other kingdoms in the Linnenean system study and analyze their past. Other species definitely learn from their past and incorporate that knowledge into their current and future behavior, but those species don’t have history teachers.
Humans, on the other hand, spend a lot of time analyzing their past, but seem less capable of incorporating what they learn into current and future behavior. It’s remarkable how much humans study history and then ignore its lessons.
In trying to figure out where we are now in the flow of human events, this irony has to be recognized. It accounts for why something that seems obvious to a student of history may be anathema to others.
Gore Vidal renamed the U.S. the United States of Amnesia, noting many examples of how quickly we forget, or ignore the obvious from history.
In just the last decade, we’ve forgotten that government is supposed to be representative of more than 1% of the population; that news media are supposed to be commercial free; that military action is a poor tool for changing a foreign culture; that war is supposed to require national sacrifice; that separation of commercial and investment banking is a good idea; that Fukashima is still fuming; and that we have an $8 trillion nuclear arsenal molding away in bunkers. Well, I forgot these lessons because I’m overwhelmed by the news that Mitt Romney wants his business history left out of play in the campaign and people are walking into public places with guns and randomly shooting.
One explanation for this curious blind spot in our memory may be that we are so flooded with information that we are aware of much more than we are actually involved with. The slippage between awareness and involvement leaves a gap at the point of significance. Often, the most current information seems most important, though only by default.
Cleaning out a shed the other day I found my notes from Mr. Chambers History class. In faded pen many years ago I wrote: “Ignorance always leads to collapse. Life has an ultimate bias toward irony.”
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.