By Brandon Cooper
A year ago today, on Lewisville’s previous birthday, I began writing a column titled Parallel Development about the history of this city. As I envisioned it, the series would cover Lewisville’s history as it related to contemporary issues. Over the past year, I’ve added a few infrequent columns about various issues, some more serious than others. During that time, my purpose has clearly changed.
I initially approached this task using that same tired line we’ve heard from history teachers our entire lives: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Though the quote is often attributed to either George Santayana or Edmund Burke, the irony here is that there is no historical evidence that either man actually said it. Santayana perhaps gave us the closest version in The Life of Reason, Volume One, Chapter XII:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
As I sifted through newspapers and documents long forgotten, I began to understand the difference between our commonly used aphorism and what Santayana actually refers to. His message in this context is not necessarily about societal progress through recalling historical events; rather, it regards personal progress as each individual matures through experience.
History is not a blunt object. Too often, we use it selectively to make the point we already wanted to make. When we read a quote from a famous historical figure that agrees with our opinion, we feel vindicated, regardless as to the context–or even authenticity–of the quote. When we want to justify our actions–or condemn the actions of others–using historical precedent, we can use almost anything to make our point. Yes, it’s necessary that we learn from the mistakes of the past, but it is even more important that we not disassociate ourselves from the lessons it teaches us. We shouldn’t judge our contemporaries through the lens of history if we cannot judge ourselves through that same lens.
In terms of newsworthy events, this has not been a good week for Lewisville. The explosion on Main Street still leaves many questions unanswered. The apparent suicide at Vista Ridge Mall has many of us on edge. Both stories have generated much publicity for the city, little of it positive. From a historical perspective, these will be long forgotten when we write our next history book. But from a personal perspective, those of us who followed these items will not soon forget the images they gave us.
It’s here where local history serves an important purpose. By learning about these individual stories, we understand that larger events were not a mere accumulation of statistical figures and generational shifts. By daring to learn about the stories outside the general historical narrative, we often discover that our community was not the monolithic force we thought it was. Individuals evolved; their views changed over time.
So should ours.