If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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Is the past dead or alive? Posing such a binary question insists upon choice; but the options constitute a false dichotomy. Nonetheless, the death of the past is often proclaimed. This BLOG examines the arguments for and against; and highlights the snares of binary thinking.

Firstly, the past, dead or alive? The ‘death of the past’ is a common, possibly reassuring notion. If you have forgotten the History dates learned at school, then don’t worry, you are in good company. Most people have. In the USA there is a sad debate entitled: ‘Is History history?’ There is at least one book entitled The Death of the Past.1 In fact, that particular study laments that people forget far too much. Nonetheless, emphatic phrases circulate in popular culture. ‘Never look back. The past is dead and buried’. ‘The bad (or good) Old Days have gone’. Something or other is irrevocably past – rendering it ‘as dead as the proverbial dodo’, which was last reliably sighted in Mauritius in 1662.2016-02 No1 Frohawk_Dodo-1905

Illus. 1: The Dodo by F.W. Frohawk,
from L.W. Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (1907).

At the same time, however, there’s a rival strand of thought, which asserts that the past is very much alive. The most famous and often quoted claim to that effect comes from William Faulkner, writing in the American Deep South in 1951, where memories and resentments from Civil War times have far from disappeared. ‘The past is never dead’, he wrote. ‘It’s not even past’. 2

Another strong statement to that effect came from Karl Marx in 1851/2. He thundered at the unpastness of the past. Revolutionary activism was constantly hampered by old thinking and old ideas: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living’.3

Opposition to old thinking was accordingly expressed by many later Communist leaders. The ‘new’ was good and revolutionary. Antiquity was the dangerous foe. Chairman Mao’s campaign against the ‘Four Olds’ – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas – was a striking example, at the time of his intended Cultural Revolution in 1966.4 Yet the fact that various traditional aspects of Chinese life still persist today indicates the difficulty of uprooting very deeply embedded social attitudes, even when using the resources of a totalitarian state.

For historians, meanwhile, it’s best to reject over-simplified choices. Many things in the past (both material and intangible) have died or come to an end. Yet far from everything has shared the same fate. Ideas, languages, cultures, religions persist through Time, incorporating changes alongside continuities; biological traits evolve over immensely long periods; the structure of the cosmos unfolds over many billennia (an emergent neologism) within a measurable framework.

Hence there’s nothing like a rigid divide between past and present. They are separated by no more than a nano-second between NOW and the immediate nano-second before NOW, so that legacies/contributions from the past infuse every moment as it is lived.

Secondly, thinking in terms of binary alternatives: Having to choose between bad/old/dead versus good/new/alive is a classic example of binary thought. It is an approach commonly cultivated by activists, for example in revolutionary or apocalyptic religious movements. Are you with the great cause or against it? Such attitudes can be psychologically powerful in binding groups together.

Binaries can also be useful when assessing the strength and weakness of an argument or a proposed course of action. As bimanual creatures, we can consider the pros and cons, using the formula ‘on the one hand’ … ‘on the other hand’. Indeed, when making a case, it’s always helpful to understand the arguments against your own. That way, when facing a fundamental critic, you are prepared. (Binary options also provide a good way to bully a witness on oath: Come on, answer, Yes or No! When the truthful reply might be ‘Somewhat’ or ‘Maybe’.)

It’s even been argued that some human societies are intrinsically binary in their deepest thought patterns. Russian culture is one that has been historically so identified.5 Hence binary switching may have helped to familiarise the population with the country’s dramatic twentieth-century lurches from Tsarism to Communism and, later, back to a different form of oligarchic Democracy. (Do today’s Russians agree; or perhaps, agree somewhat?)

Either way, there is no doubt that binary thought, like binary notation, has its uses. But studying History requires the capacity to grapple with complexity alongside simplicity. Is the past dead or alive? The answer is both and neither. It falls within the embrace of ever-stable ever-fluid Time, which lives and dies simultaneously.

J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969; reissued Harmondsworth, 1973; Basingstoke, 2003).

W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951), Act 1, sc. 3.

K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1851/2), in D. McClellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p. 300.

P. Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (Cambridge, 2008); M. Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008).

Y.M. Lotman and B.A. Uspensky, ‘Binary Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture’, in A.D. and A.S. Nakhimovsky (eds), The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History (Ithaca, NY., 1985), pp. 30-66.

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