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Shelter Island Reporter editorial: Connections

Charity Robey’s excellent feature article a couple of weeks ago chronicling a day in the life of the Shelter Island Historical Society reminded us that there are many wonderful observations on the subject of history.

Henry Ford’s pronouncement that, “History is more or less bunk,” makes you think: What would you expect from a racist, antisemite and megalomaniac?

Or the wit of, “History is just one damned thing after another,” attributed to the historian Arnold J. Toynbee. (He also said: “Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.”) 

Or, looking at Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency this year, Karl Marx’s comment that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, would seem closer to the truth if you reversed it.

One of the most quoted quotes about history is by the philosopher George Santayana, who wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This was used as an epigraph by William Shirer for his epic history, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and is relevant today, as it is for any era.

There was a famous and controversial book by Francis Fukuyama titled: ”The End of History and the Last Man” about the triumph of liberal democracies and the withering away of totalitarian and autocratic states, which didn’t quite work out that way.

But there’s another threat to the annihilation of history, which seems closer to reality than Fukuyama’s notions, and that’s the number of students in colleges bypassing history as a subject, along with other humanities studies, such as English and the study of literature.

Research has shown that only about one in 10 students graduated with degrees in the humanities in 2020, down 25% from a decade before that. There’s not enough space here to give reasons why, only that it’s one of the more troubling trends in an increasingly troubling era.

Besides studying the past to draw lessons to apply to the present, there’s another essential gift that history presents, which is the concept of connection. Connection to the people who have gone before us, where they lived, and worked, and raised families, and where we are now.

These connections inform us that we are not merely actors on a stage set in the present, but are part of something still alive that has gone before us, providing us with a sense of permanence. This might also be called tradition, which T.S. Eliot defined as “the vitality of the past enriching the life of the present.”

Islanders are blessed to have a place where history is studied, honored and given to the community every day. The Historical Society, in its extraordinarily beautiful setting, digs deep into the Island’s past, bringing forth records and artifacts, to present in creative and vibrant exhibitions and events.

If you’ve never been, go. If you haven’t been in a while, make it a point to revisit. You’ll be enchanted and blessed by the connections you’ll make.