This well-known and often misquoted quote by George Santayana (1863-1952), a Spanish-US American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist who was born in Madrid and died in Rome, literally assumes there is something learned in the first place that has since been forgotten. This is not the case with people who don’t learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of their country’s history, or any history, for that matter.
Vũ Viết Tuân, a Vietnamese journalist, recently wrote an article entitled Khoảng trống lịch sử that was subsequently translated into English with the more descriptive title Vietnam needs to embrace its history fully. This is a simple yet profound lesson that many countries need to learn, including the United States. (The first time I began to fill in the gaps of the top-down history I was taught as a child was when I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a high school student.)
Any culture and civilization that ever existed on our land is a part of our historical legacy. – Phan Huy Lê (1934-2018)
I should add that Mr. Tuân wrote this article in the context of the recent national high school graduation examination and the death of one of Viet Nam’s greatest historians, Professor Phan Huy Lê, who passed away on 23 June.
As someone who studied, taught, and conducted research in Germany, I know there is plenty of convincing evidence that this country went to great lengths and was largely successful in overcoming its Nazi past in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past”. Sadly, the US has yet to accomplish this goal only as it relates to the American War in Viet Nam, not to mention many other tragedies of US and world history starting with the annihilation of Native American tribes in the 17th century in colonial America.
While ignorance may very well be bliss, it is not a recommended state of mind for anyone or any society that wishes to learn from its mistakes and not repeat them in the hope of creating a better future.