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 Life—The 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.