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Wisdom of History

Wisdom of History

Professor J. Rufus Fears Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
Course No.  4360
Course No.  4360
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Do the lessons passed down to us by history, lessons whose origins may lie hundreds, even thousands, of years in the past, still have value for us today? Is Santayana's oft-repeated saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" merely a way to offer lip service to history as a teacher—or can we learn from it? And if we can, what is it that we should be learning?

Professor J. Rufus Fears believes that not only can we learn from history—we must. In The Wisdom of History, his newest course for The Teaching Company, he draws on decades of experience as a world-renowned scholar and classical historian to examine the patterns of history. Ignoring them, by choice or because we've never learned to see them, is to risk becoming their prisoner, repeating the mistakes that have toppled leaders, nations, and empires throughout time.

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Do the lessons passed down to us by history, lessons whose origins may lie hundreds, even thousands, of years in the past, still have value for us today? Is Santayana's oft-repeated saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" merely a way to offer lip service to history as a teacher—or can we learn from it? And if we can, what is it that we should be learning?

Professor J. Rufus Fears believes that not only can we learn from history—we must. In The Wisdom of History, his newest course for The Teaching Company, he draws on decades of experience as a world-renowned scholar and classical historian to examine the patterns of history. Ignoring them, by choice or because we've never learned to see them, is to risk becoming their prisoner, repeating the mistakes that have toppled leaders, nations, and empires throughout time.

In this personal reflection on history, Professor Fears has taken on the challenge of extracting the past's lessons in ways that speak to us today, showing us how the experience of ancient empires like those of Rome and Persia have much to teach us about the risks and responsibilities of being a superpower. He shows how the study of those who left their impact on an earlier world—Caesar Augustus or Genghis Khan, George Washington or Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi or Josef Stalin—can equip us to make responsible choices as nations, citizens, or individuals.

You may not agree with everything Professor Fears says history teaches us—for example, that the desire for freedom and democracy is not shared by everyone and never has been—but that is fine with him, even desirable. For example, here's what he writes about the accompanying course bibliography:

"I have followed Lord Acton's dictum that it is the mark of an uneducated person to read books he or she agrees with. The educated person reads books he or she disagrees with. Thus I have frequently recommended books that disagree with me because these are the ones we find most stimulating."

The challenge Professor Fears poses, to seek such stimulation and examine history closely, is especially pertinent during the "ahistorical age" he says we live in—an era when too many people are willing to invest in a "dangerous delusion" that "science, technology, the global economy, and the information superhighway all make us immune to the lessons of history," and that "in an age of global economy, war and tyranny will become things of the past."

A Profound Challenge

This delusion, Professor Fears says, has become more dangerous in light of recent history.

"The terrorist attack on our country was a watershed for American history. 9/11 presented the United States with a challenge as profound as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. The Wisdom of History was conceived in my conviction that if America and its leaders are to meet that challenge, then we must learn and apply the lessons of history."

Because it addresses enduring issues that have contemporary relevance, this course is perhaps even more timely than any current headline. It offers a relevant context for understanding the post-9/11 world Professor Fears says has transformed our country and influenced his own intellectual growth; a world in which the Middle East plays—as it does in this course—a recurrent and crucial part.

Like Professor Fears's five previous courses—A History of Freedom, Famous Greeks, Famous Romans, Churchill, and Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your LifeThe Wisdom of History is taught with passionate conviction and love of subject.

For those who have already enjoyed one or more courses by Professor Fears, The Wisdom of History makes an ideal companion piece. And for those new to Dr. Fears, this course is ideal as an introduction to the work of a scholar whose mastery of his subject and ability to present it with clarity and spirit has been repeatedly honored by his peers and students.

Professor Fears has extraordinary skills as both teacher and scholar. He has received 24 university and national teaching awards; he was named three times by University of Oklahoma students as Professor of the Year, and once as Most Inspiring Professor.

Vivid Narratives from a Superb Storyteller

Professor Fears creates vivid narratives of people and events that continue to reverberate in your mind long after you've paused a lecture to think about what you've just heard. This skill has helped make his courses among our most popular, and it is on frequent display in these lectures.

But in a panoramic exploration that ranges from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to the history of this nation, and in his unflinching and perceptive portraits of those who shaped our world for better and worse, Professor Fears supplies something more than just another telling of history, no matter how engrossing.

By filtering history through his personal perspective—and inviting us to take seriously the effort to distill laws or lessons from the past—he is determined to teach us to see history from a fresh perspective that both evokes the past and speaks to the present. The result is a course that teaches us, by example, how to learn from history. We can add what we learn to the storehouse of hard-won wisdom each of us have already built up to make our own decisions, both privately and as citizens or public leaders.

Some of History's most Provocative Themes

What sorts of themes does Professor Fears invite us to consider? He uses an intimate portrait of Winston Churchill, a man who understood history deeply and wisely, to tell us that:

  • Despite the importance of doing so, we do not learn from history.
  • Science and technology cannot immunize us from history's lessons.
  • Freedom, which Americans believe is longed for by people worldwide, is not a globally shared value. By contrast, desire for power, whether wielded as a despot, or as a benevolent empire or superpower, is a universal value.
  • Known as the cradle of civilization, the Middle East has also been the graveyard of empires, no matter what their intention, as the Romans and so many others have learned.
  • America will experience the same ultimate destiny as the memorable democracies, republics, and superpowers of the past.
  • Religion and spirituality—and the lust for power—are the most profound motivators in history.
  • Nations and empires rise and fall not because of anonymous social and economic forces but because of decisions made by individuals.
  • A true statesman possesses four qualities: a bedrock of principles, a moral compass, a vision, and the ability to build consensus to achieve that vision.

Professor Fears also declares that the United States, because of its unique foundation in freedom and the power it wields through science and technology, "might still be able to provide lessons and leadership to guide the world into a new age of prosperity—if Americans are willing to learn from the past." We are not free from the lessons of history, but we can learn from those lessons and make our decisions based on what we learn.

Although most of us will never achieve the knowledge and understanding of history wielded by a man like Churchill, the end of this course indeed brings us to the same position in which Professor Fears placed him at its beginning—armed with a historical perspective that can, if we choose to heed its wisdom, help guide our lives and choices for the future.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Why We Study History
    We define the wisdom of history as the ability to think historically, that is, to use the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present, and to plan for the future—as Winston Churchill did in preparing for and executing his destiny as a statesman. x
  • 2
    World War I and the Lessons of History
    This lecture asks why the last century—unequalled in advancements in technology, science, education, and knowledge—is also unequalled in the destructiveness of its wars, the scale of its human suffering, and the savagery of its tyrannies. x
  • 3
    Hitler's Rise and the Lessons of History
    Churchill called World War II "the unnecessary war." The existence of Adolf Hitler is a pre-eminent example of the lessons history tries to teach us. This lecture looks at how the failure of Woodrow Wilson and the generation of politicians after World War I demonstrate the consequences of ignoring those lessons. x
  • 4
    World War II and the Lessons of History
    Winston Churchill understood that Stalin was a tyrant as evil as Hitler, and that Communism was as evil as National Socialism. But as he attempted to heed history's lessons and prevent the Allies from repeating and compounding the mistakes made after World War I, his warnings were ignored. x
  • 5
    Is Freedom a Universal Value?
    Freedom consists of three separate ideals. Those ideals—national, political, and individual—of freedom have achieved a unique balance in the United States, the result of a likewise unique confluence of historical currents. But history teaches that such a balance is not universal, and that failure to understand this lesson can have dire consequences. x
  • 6
    Birth of Civilization in the Middle East
    America's foreign policy has long been based on the belief that freedom is a universal value. But the history of what is now known as the Middle East shows that nations, like individuals, frequently choose the perceived security of despotism to the responsibilities of freedom, with great civilizations—ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example—rising and falling with no concept of freedom. x
  • 7
    The Trojan War and the Middle East
    The power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hittite and Egyptian empires led to the most famous war of antiquity, which demonstrates for us that a balance of power is a fragile and dangerous mechanism for maintaining peace. x
  • 8
    Ancient Israel and the Middle East
    The Old Testament, our earliest example of historical writing, has in the book of Samuel profound lessons for us today. The story of King David teaches that there is a profound moral dimension to history and that private and public morality cannot be separated. x
  • 9
    Ancient Greece and the Middle East
    Herodotus composed his Histories of the war between Persia and Greece in an effort to explain the ways of the gods to men, seeking to understand through history and its moral dimensions why nations rise and fall. He found his explanation in the concept of hybris, the outrageous abuse of power that leads nations and individuals to disaster. x
  • 10
    Athenian Democracy and Empire
    Athenian democracy rested on values fundamentally identical to American democracy. It teaches us that empire and democratic freedom are compatible, that democracies do not necessarily make peaceful neighbors, and that wars undertaken to spread democratic values can end in defeat and disaster. x
  • 11
    The Destiny of the Athenian Democracy
    America shares with ancient Athens a fundamental conviction that it is the duty of the strong to come to the aid of the weak, with corollary beliefs in pre-emptive war, often with the expectation of being welcomed as a liberator. The experiences of ancient Athens suggest that these are dangerous delusions. x
  • 12
    Alexander the Great and the Middle East
    Alexander was uniquely successful in his ability to solve the problem of the Middle East. He ruled not by imposing Greek ideals but by becoming a Middle Easterner, accepting the ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East and its long tradition of absolute rule. x
  • 13
    The Roman Republic as Superpower
    History teaches that it is very difficult to be a superpower with a constitution designed for a small city-state. Rome was ultimately forced to choose whether to keep the freedoms of a republic or to remain a superpower. Its choice determined the future politics of Europe and the Middle East to this day. x
  • 14
    Rome of the Caesars as Superpower
    The Roman Empire did far more than the Roman Republic to advance the cause of individual freedom. It offered a model of how to achieve peace and prosperity over a large geographical area while securing individual rights, ethnic autonomy, and local political freedom. x
  • 15
    Rome and the Middle East
    The Middle East supplies a key to understanding the history of Rome. Rome's attempts to bring stability, peace, and Roman political values to Judea illustrate why the Romans found a solution to the problems of the Middle East so intractable. x
  • 16
    Why the Roman Empire Fell
    Since the time Rome was declining and falling, historians, moralists, and countless others have tried to explain why. In addition to threats from Germanic tribes, much of the explanation lies in Rome's involvement in the Middle East and the cycle of nation building, annexation, and terrorism that followed. Failure to solve these problems reduced the Roman Empire to a relic. x
  • 17
    Christianity
    In an important fashion, Christianity was a triumph of the religious values of the Middle East over the traditions of Greece and Rome. The rise of Christianity and Islam, within the context of the Roman Empire, illustrates the power of religion as a motivating force in history. x
  • 18
    Islam
    Christianity and Islam have much in common. Yet from the beginning of Islam in the 7th century they have been locked in conflict. The Byzantine Empire and the Crusades demonstrate enduring lessons about the Middle East as the graveyard of empires. x
  • 19
    The Ottoman Empire and Turkey
    Mustapha Kemal, known to history as Ataturk, is the most remarkable and successful statesman produced by the modern Middle East. His creation of a unified Turkey built on a foundation of secularism and ethnic nationalism is a most instructive example of how to create a nation-state in the Middle East that is based on European political and cultural values. x
  • 20
    The Spanish Empire and Latin America
    Despite its proximity to the United States, its vast resources, and its industrious population, Latin America has never developed enduring institutions of democracy. Instead, it has often given us examples of civil war and despotism. The history of Latin America shakes the assumption that democracy in one country will spread to neighboring countries. x
  • 21
    Napoleon's Liberal Empire
    Napoleon saw himself as a combination of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, but his attempts to transform Europe as a benevolent despot failed. His career attests to both the enduring lesson of hybris and the danger of pre-emptive wars in the name of liberal and democratic ideals. x
  • 22
    The British Empire in India
    The British believed they were combining liberty and empire, but, for many of their subjects, Britain was simply an example of the lust for power as a motivating force of history. The British experience in India illustrated the power of other forces—ideas and religion—to shape history. Who could have imagined a frail Indian barrister could, without violence, bring such an empire to its knees? x
  • 23
    Russia and Empire
    In both 20th-century Russia and China, democratic revolutions would end in savage tyrannies. The wisdom of history teaches us that this is not an accident, but the predictable result of the historical development of both countries. x
  • 24
    China and Empire
    Civilization rose in China independently from the birth of civilization in the Middle East. But like the Middle East, China throughout its history has chosen despotism over freedom, with Confucius's notion—of order flowing from above—as an ideal that persists, producing despotism even out of a revolution aimed at establishing democracy. x
  • 25
    The Empire of Genghis Khan
    Genghis Khan is one of history's bloodiest conquerors, yet modern historians see him as a statesman who brought a new era of achievement to regions he conquered. His life and legacy teach the lesson of the lust for power—and its ambiguous consequences. x
  • 26
    Britain's Legacy of Freedom
    This lecture considers the heritage of freedom that developed in England and was passed on to America, where it merged with four other crucial historical currents of freedom—the Old Testament, Greece and Rome, Christianity, and the U.S. frontier. x
  • 27
    George Washington as Statesman
    Since Herodotus and Thucydides, the question has been asked: In a time of crisis, can a democracy bring forth leaders superior to those produced by autocracy? The short answer is "yes," as is the longer one, with this lecture offering the first of two examples from our nation's history. x
  • 28
    Thomas Jefferson as Statesman
    Napoleon believed himself destined to establish a new Roman Empire, but it was his democratic contemporary, a man of far different moral character, whose decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory created an empire far larger, more enduring, and more noble than anything Napoleon imagined. x
  • 29
    America's Empire of Liberty—Lewis and Clark
    Americans are reluctant to describe this country as an empire, but the United States is one of the most successful imperial nations in history. This lecture explores the consequences of Jefferson's foresight in not only accomplishing the Louisiana Purchase—the largest expansion of territory ever made by purchase and negotiation—but in choosing the ideal men to lead the expedition to explore those new lands. x
  • 30
    America and Slavery
    The United States was founded in the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal." However, slavery was recognized by the Constitution as the law of the land. Ultimately, only the Civil War could resolve Americans' understanding of the fundamental meaning of freedom. x
  • 31
    Abraham Lincoln as Statesman
    At the beginning of the Civil War, many in Europe and America believed that the decay of democracy was embodied in the choice of a backwoods solicitor to guide his nation. Instead, Lincoln's presidency provided the ultimate testimony to the ability of democracy to produce leaders in a time of crisis. x
  • 32
    The United States and Empire
    With the end of the Civil War, the once-more-United States entered the stage of world politics, making it clear to the powers of Europe that this young nation, despite its recent internal conflicts, was not going to fade away. But as America began its appearance on that stage, could it reconcile its values as a democracy with its actions as a superpower? x
  • 33
    Franklin Roosevelt as Statesman
    During World War II, the rule of totalitarian governments extended from Spain to Vladivostok. Yet democracy was able to triumph. As was the case with Britain and Winston Churchill, the United States was able to produce, in Franklin Roosevelt, a wartime leader with few equals in history. x
  • 34
    A Superpower at the Crossroads
    Harry Truman believed that America was chosen to bring freedom to the world and that to achieve this, America must be a superpower. In the process, the United States entered into the legacy of the empires of Europe and Asia—in the Middle East, Indo-China, and Korea. The consequences are still with us. x
  • 35
    The Wisdom of History and the Citizen
    The wisdom of history has lessons for each of us, both as citizens and as private individuals. The Founders of our country were successful as statesmen because they thought historically and understood that history is the most important discipline for citizens of a free republic. x
  • 36
    The Wisdom of History and You
    We look at what each one of us in our personal lives can take away from history—which can be described without trivialization as one great self-help book, more valuable than all the guides that fill the shelves in airport bookstores—and discover perhaps its greatest lesson. x

Lecture Titles

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J. Rufus Fears
Ph.D. J. Rufus Fears
University of Oklahoma
Dr. J. Rufus Fears was David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was Professor of History and Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer at Indiana University, and Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. An acclaimed teacher and scholar with more than 25 awards for teaching excellence, Professor Fears was chosen Professor of the Year on three occasions by students at the University of Oklahoma. His other accolades included the Medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) Great Plains Region Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the UCEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence. Professor Fears's books and monographs include The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology and The Theology of Victory at Rome. He edited a three-volume edition of Selected Writings of Lord Acton. His discussions of the Great Books have appeared in newspapers across the country and have aired on national television and radio programs. Professor Fears passed away in October 2012.
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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by 107 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Spectacular in its insight and breadth This is the best of all the many courses I've taken here. I cannot praise it highly enough. There are some negative reviews. If I had time, I would endeavour to explain how they are based on misunderstandings - but that is too big a job. I will just make a few general rebuttals of negative reviews. (1) Please get the facts straight. Prof. Fears makes 10 points in the introduction which are the lessons of history, then returns to these points throughout the following 35 lectures, explaining how they are demonstrated. Just as you cannot prove that black swans do not exist, he does not attempt to prove that every corresponding issue in history has proven his point. He shows you some key events in history which demonstrate the point. If you then think that the point is still weak, and can refer to other historical events which show the opposite, that is fine! He is just giving you some tools and a framework with which to try make sense of history, in a way which is more constructive than just treating it as a vast expanse of blancmange. There will always be counter examples - its a question of balance. This lecture series is not the venue for PROVING a thesis. Its a venue for offering useful insights and models. The proof would take a book or several, and is to be done elsewhere. (2) Following on from the above, covering all the lessons of history over 5000 years in 36 lectures, he has to summarise and abbreviate. He cannot provide all the backup argument and cases, in fact, has not even got time to fully pad the arguments. And I DON'T want a 72 or 144 part lecture series, which has all the extra stuff in. Please, when criticising, bear in mind that (a) he is short on time, and (b) it is uni-directional communication - he cannot engage with you in post-lecture questions. (3) Some people read his voice and expression as a sign of smugness or even arrogance. I did not read that at all. What I heard was joy, pure joy. This is a man that loves his subject and would happily talk to anyone from the US President to his apartment janitor about it. I feel that he would love nothing more than to engage with any negative opinion, and, reflecting back on his obviously vast knowledge, see how THAT opinion may be used to shed more light on the lessons of history. We are not dealing here with a bad attitude. In fact, far far from it. It is true, as some reviewer say, that its all very well retrospectively saying what mistakes were made, but the question is, now, in the present, which one of the many lessons from the past is the one which is applicable? Well, Prof. Fears is NOT providing an algorithm with which to construct some decision making machinery for political and military issues. That would be a wonderful thing, but perhaps not due till the end of this century. It would have been interesting if, at the end, he produced some matrix which showed how to balance and prioritise these various lessons across different subject areas, with caveats and so on - if such a thing is even possible. But frankly, that's a job for another time, or perhaps a 2nd lecture series :-) But I would assert, counter-intuitively actually, that the fact that he cherry picked his examples in order to prove his 'lessons', does not negate the validity of his exposition. Just as I haven't time to cover the criticisms, I only have time to touch on the many positives, which I will do by way of one example. The Romans had a similar problem with terrorism and piracy in the Mediterranean as we currently have around Somalia and the Indian ocean. They even foolishly took a young student as hostage for ransom on his gap year, a certain Julius Caesar no less. The Romans pondered the question of the efficacy of democracies when facing non-existential threats. Eventually the citizens tired of the Senate's ponderings, and gave absolute authority to Pompey to deal with the problem. Within 6 months, thanks to repeated crucifixions of the ones he caught, the problem had disappeared. Pompey's approach is more similar to the approach Putin has taken, and Russia is not a democracy in the sense we understand it. I found it very helpful to see that this current problem, seen as insoluble and intractable through the lens of current societal mores, has already been played out 2000 years ago. In contrast with the difficulty that democracies have in dealing with the non-existential threats, I found his explanation of the persistence of democracies when dealing with existential threats, to be very helpful. A tyrant when losing can agree a peace treaty which perhaps safeguards some of his own protection, whilst throwing the rest of the people under the bus. But a democracy would struggle to even begin that discussion, because the leader has no mandate, without conferring with other representatives. So it seems that the worst, most costly and most persistent wars, in my limited knowledge, appear to have been ones involving democracies. Again, one can protest the Iran-Iraq war. Well, perhaps that comes under another category of competing theologies? I don't know, but the point is, that this is a useful lens with which to start to examine this vast topic. I hope you are all able to gain as much enjoyment and insight from this course as I felt I received. October 8, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Big disappointment! This is the one course that the Teaching Company produces that I have found to be poorly prepped, internally inconsistent and somewhat patronizing in presentation. I have purchased and enjoyed dozens of the Teaching Company courses, listening to several many times over. This one I could not stand to complete the first time I tried. Professor Fears seems to think that we need to be told what people meant to say, interpreting sources simplistically and solely to support his theme. Unfortunately, he is inconsistent in what he presents, occasionally contradicting himself. His general assertion is that "people make history," while at other times he asserts that one cannot successfully oppose the "wave of the future." Mostly, though, I objected to the manner in which he seemed to suggest that his listeners/viewers were not quite capable of forming their own opinions about the topics and themes he presents. I don't purchase college-level courses to be told what I should think about things. I buy them so that I can become more knowledgeable and thus better able to form my own conclusions. Sorry I purchased this product. September 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Greatness of Professor J. Rufus Fears This course by Professor Fears has had a profound impact on me. That’s because Professor Fears made every lecture personal by explaining how the subject matter directly relates to you the listener and with how you will conduct the rest of your life, both personally and as a citizen, by keeping in mind the lessons of history. I did not come upon the Teaching Company courses by Professor Fears until after his passing in 2012. This fact has left me with a feeling of great sadness because he was the kind of person whom you would like to have personally known and befriended. The only way I could think of an appropriate way to express my feelings on the death of Professor Fears was to quote “The Phaedo” of Plato, where Phaedo, the beloved disciple of Socrates, and narrator of the dialogue, says of Socrates on his death: “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.” (Translated from Attic Greek by Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893). June 16, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by A Simplistic View of History Professor Fears is a good story teller. However, his "lessons of history" are presented without any criteria regarding how they were chosen. Apparently, when things work out badly for the historical figure in question, s/he "failed to learn the lessons of history." In fact, history contains many, many potential lessons. Which ones are we to learn from? Other than to expound on his own choices, Professor Fears doesn't say. Why, for example, should Neville Chamberlain have learned "not to appease tyrants" instead of "war is hell" when appeasing Hitler (in Czechoslovakia) might have avoided repeating the unmitigated disaster of WW I, which imposed enormous costs, in blood and treasure, on Europe. I ask rhetorically, isn't there a lesson in the devastation of WW I? Furthermore, his lessons often seem to contradict one another. For example, at various points in the lecture series, he claims that democracies can never be successful empires? Really? The U.S.? The U.K.? His answer seems to be to define them out of the category of empires. No fair. All in all, this set of "history lessons" can only appeal to those who don't think deeply about history. March 19, 2014
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