Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

by andyhegedus on August 8, 2013

Often what we need already exists

Have you ever heard this blog’s title before? Its a famous saying by George Santayana published in Reason in Common Sense, volume 1 of The Life of Reason published in 1905.

 Some things have not changed much in over a century. How many meetings have you gone to where people put dots on ideas on the wall and walk away dissatisfied? They search in vain for strategic approaches to understand and resolve complex and wicked problems, and may not even be able to articulate that they are doing so. I’ve learned over the years that we repeat the past over and over and over.

When I was in college, I had a professor that I remember vividly to this day. He was brilliant, caring, and pushed us hard. He had done very difficult and important nuclear shielding design work in the 1950s without computers. I struggled to even grasp how it was possible using all the tools I had at my fingertips thirty years later.

A few years back I did some research on the Federal government’s primary education law – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). I researched the law from its current version – No Child Left Behind – all the way back to the original version approved in 1965. I left the research in awe of the people who sorted through the initial version’s policy complexities and drafted comprehensive legislation with a clear focus and a reasoned approach to the issue.

Now here we are with Structured Democratic Dialogue. The 40+ years of work by Aleco Christakis, John Warfield, and a host of others helps us understand and make progress on our most wicked social problems. Their work isn’t widely known outside a small circle even though it is the most documented and reviewed dialogue process ever. It transitions dialogue from being mainly an art to a science. Luckily, I found it doing my literature review for my doctoral paper.

In the big picture it seems to me that there are really, really smart people who did amazing work that has and can change the world. No one knows about it or is even looking for it. For me, the issue is not one of trying to remember the past; it’s one of trying to discover the past. With all the internet search tools available now there really is no barrier.

When dealing with complex and wicked problems, maybe the modern version of Santayana’s saying should be:

Those who don’t seek the best wisdom from the minds of the past are condemned to repeat the present.

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