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Welcome Address--National History Day

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Maryland
1132 Regents Drive
College Park, MD
United States

June 13, 2010

As we celebrate National History Day and commence this extraordinary student convocation, I would like to take a moment to stress how challenging it is to bring perspective to events of the day.

Every society has a sage who wisely suggests that not to study history is an invitation to repeat mistakes of the past. But care must be taken to recognize that certitude about historical lessons can be dangerous, too.

Saint Paul once warned early Christians that we all see through a glass, darkly. His faith-based observation applies by analogy to history. Facts may be definitive but the “whys and wherefores” are never totally clear.

Like Paul, we must acknowledge that we will always be looking through an historical lens, darkly. Full understanding is never possible.

Nevertheless, there is no surer guide to good judgment than collective human experience—history. The greater clarity we provide to the past, the less mysterious the future will be.

The murkiness of historical lessons is a conundrum reflected in the two bloodiest conflicts in recorded time—the two world wars of the 20th century. Historical review in the aftermath of the First World War led to the conclusion that the European balance of power system was too inflexible. A relatively minor event, the assassination of an archduke, should never have precipitated the killing of millions.

But when even more malevolent leadership came to power in Germany less than two decades later, European leaders, looking to the lessons of Sarajevo, yielded too much too quickly to Hitler. Appeasement proved to be ineffective, indeed, unconscionable.

Too much inflexibility led to one war; too much flexibility exacerbated the second.

Despite historical lessons being mixed, even inconsistent, individual and public judgments are honed from studying the past—failures as well as successes. Smart people learn the most from failures, especially of others. Sometimes though there is a slippery tendency to be blinded by success, by good things happening.

An old saw about casinos is that little is more entrapping than for a customer to hit a jackpot the first time gambling. Easy winning leads to overconfidence even when one knows the long-term odds are stacked.

History has shown no error-free governments, but we Americans have by and large held strong positional cards and been respected for our motives and generally but not always been vindicated by outcomes.

Innovation—the theme of this year’s National History Day—has been on our side. Technology has made America an industrial powerhouse. It has provided a huge difference in our ability to prevail in World War II as well as in the greatest un-fought war in history—the Cold War.

But technology and the force of arms have never been so powerful as to tame the human spirit. It was, after all, a labor leader in Poland, a playwright in Czechoslovakia, a Pope in Rome, who stood down one of the most awesome military powers ever assembled—that of the Soviet Union.

Throughout history peoples have shown they prefer to control their own destinies. Uniquely in this context, America was established as an idea and ideal as well as a country.

We are fortunate to stand on the shoulders of patriots who determined to build a society based on principles laid out in the most revolutionary document in history—the Declaration of Independence—and ensconced in the most vaunted governance arrangement ever established—our Constitution-based political system.

The ideals set forth and the governing arrangements created and subsequently refined are reflected in four great debates.

The first centered on whether a country could be formed based on the rights of man.

The second, which lasted more than a century, involving a Civil War, suffrage and civil rights movements, was about definitions—whether the idea of “man” included those who weren’t simply male or pale.

The third, symbolized by the governmental activism of Franklin Roosevelt contrasted with the reliance on individual initiative of Ronald Reagan, is all about opportunity, how most effectively to structure society to insure that everyone has a fair crack at the American dream.

The fourth debate, which was soberly underscored 65 years ago with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is whether political and social rights are meaningful without peace and personal security. An aspect of the security debate has come graphically to the fore in the past several months with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The first debate has been fully resolved; the second largely; the third will always be with us; but it is the last that has in a flicker of the human experience become the most important. Splitting the atom, Einstein noted, has changed everything except our way of thinking.

While much of recorded history can be characterized by repetition of events with human nature as the only constant, the story of America is of unprecedented change, of unleashing the power of imagination.

The mission of young historians, should you choose to accept it, is to bring greater perspective to the past so we can better manage problems of the present and understand looming ones of the future. This could necessitate the need, as Einstein implies, to change our way of thinking. No greater challenge has been given a more promising generation.

I have no doubt you are up to the task.

Thank you.