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Old lessons relearnt

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6153 (Published 17 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6153

Rapid Response:

The irony about quoting and learning from the past: there is really nothing new under the sun

Dear Editors

We are all products of learning from our past from various sources, including our family, teachers, peers, books, newspapers, magazines and other "authorities" we chose to learn from.

The chosen quote attributed to Winston (S) Churchill (WSC) mentioned in Dr Anand Ramanujapuram's rapid response is an excellent example of illustrating the case in point.

Although WSC is said to have spoken/written this quote: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, many others attribute the original incarnation of this statement to a Spanish-born American man of letters George Santayana (1863 - 1952).

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." [The Life of Reason (1905-1906) Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense] (Ref 1)

Mind you, Mr Santayana is hardly the first nor the last to write about learning from history/the past or the failure to do so (Ref 2).

As for whether WSC actually uttered the statement attributed to him, we may never know, but I suspect the librarians working in the institution dedicated to his work probably came the closest (Ref 3):

"When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

—House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria. (My book* page 490)."

As in the blog published by the National Churchill Museum - Designated by Congress as America’s National Churchill Museum on 16 November 2012.

As we progress into another realm of the new digital age, more institutions are resorting to metaphorical book burning by reducing the physical storage space allocated to old works perceived as outdated or irrelevant to today's life. Sure, some will claim that they will scan selectively important works to be preserved 'for prosperity' in digital format but the very nature of culling the number of printed works for scanning according to allocated budget is akin to modern day censorship.

The phrase "book burning" often conjures up images of the Nazi book burning campaign in 1933; in fact this type of act of cultural vandalism has occurred repeatedly throughout known history, but few had the scale to match what Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty in China, is said to have done in burning books and burying scholars in 213 BC.

Perhaps it is time we all recognize we have an obligation to preserve our past and present properly (and probably physically in printed books) and stop pretending selective digitalisation of old works will be an adequate legacy to future generations. Anyone who owns a magnetic tape reel, cassette tape, floppy disc or even a compact disc can tell you how difficult it is to retrieve digital information from half a lifetime ago. On that note, the existence of the Internet is less than a quarter of a lifetime!

We have to recognize and inform others when history repeats itself, as our responsibility for the collective wisdom of our society. We are also responsible for maintaining the torch of knowledge properly and securely.

Afterall, "there is (really) nothing new under the sun", as told to me by a Muslim friend quoting a popular Hebrew proverb taken from Ecclesiastes 1:9 from the Old Testament of the Bible!

References

1. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Santayana
2. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/history/quotations/lessons_of_history.html
3. https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/blog/churchill-quote-history/

Competing interests: No competing interests

19 November 2016
Shyan Goh
Orthopaedic Surgeon
Sydney, Australia