The past has much to teach us about the present

R. Bruce Anderson
R. Bruce Anderson
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By the time this column hits the newsstands, I’ll be over the water.  My home institution has an amazing program dubbed “Junior Journey,” which sends student literally all over the world, for a short but intense dive into the culture, language, sights and history of another country.

There are domestic trips, too, but the most popular choice of students tends to be overseas. The trip is not a “vacation,” but an intentional and critical part of the academic curriculum. For over a decade, I’ve been leading trips to Germany. Both my kids are German, and I’ve been in and out of that country for about 40 years.

Germany’s cultural history is astonishingly varied: Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were German and so were Hegel, Kant, and Schopenhauer. Germany birthed the Bauhaus school of architecture. Romanticism has deep roots here; Goethe’s poetry and drama still permeate modern Germany as does the writing of Thomas Mann. But Germany’s history also records some of the ugliest and most horrible crimes perpetrated by a modern state. When we go to Germany this year, we’ll have a look at both.

The last few days of our German itinerary probably illustrate this best. We visit Munich and walk through the English Garden in the center city and see the magnificent “Frauenkirche,” a 12th Century Cathedral. But a day later, we examine the Dachau KZ Memorial - the site of the first concentration camp.

The Germany of the 1950s, as one of my friends who lived that period told me, had simply removed recent memory from the classroom. “It was as if there was the inflation of Weimar, the jazz age, and suddenly, the economic miracle of Konrad Adenauer,” she said. The Weimar Republic ran roughly from 1920 to1933. Konrad Adenauer was Chancellor of (West) Germany from 1949 to 1963. Something was missing: the years 1933-1945, for example - the most horrific period in German history. All that changed as Germans decided to begin their painful process of soul-searching.

In this Feb. 15, 2019, file photo, an entrance gate at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is pictured in Oswiecim, Poland. The sign over the gate reads "work makes one free". Germany has agreed to provide more than a half billion euros to aid Holocaust survivors struggling under the burdens of the coronavirus pandemic, the organization that negotiates compensation with the German government said Wednesday.

Germans now deal with the uncomfortable aspects of their history in an interesting way. They put them right out front, “own” them and do their best to learn from them. Every German schoolkid has spent some time studying the Holocaust and has visited and taken a class of some sort at a concentration camp or other memorial of the period. Police recruits and officer candidates in the Army are also required to do so. They look at their past in an unflinching way, digging out the dreadful teachings of their own nation’s historical curricula.

More and more political capital is being spent on silencing the narrative of our own negative history. But if we do this, if the lectures of American civics and history become one more fantasy of patriotic unicorns and red-white and blue rainbows, we deny ourselves the God-given opportunity to do better. Which is the central idea of American “exceptionalism.” Where others avoid and ignore, we reflect, learn and improve.

Our republic has endured not because we hide awful things, but because we recognize them, and work to repair, replace, and reorganize. We have been flexible in our approaches to great wrongs of the past because we know what they are, we have examined them in detail, and can move forward. But with a history denuded of the things that make us “uncomfortable,” we run the very real risk of being strapped into the straitjacket of our own past errors.

Education is the examination, learning, consideration and actualization of known things.  Knowledge is not “common” – we do not come to it by osmosis, it has to be taught. Teaching is the process of two critically important processes: the relaying of known facts, and the extrapolation and discussion of these facts which (we hope) will lead to research and new knowledge.

The past has much to teach the people in the present – but not if it obscured or erased by a self-serving political process.

R. Bruce Anderson ( is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: The past has much to teach us about the present