Civic Education, Rightly Understood

Wilfred McClay:

We live in anxious times. But many times in our past were far more anxious, and the reasons for anxiety then were more compelling. Consider, for example, the situation facing the world in the early months of 1941, when Hitler’s triumphant armies controlled continental Europe, when only the British Isles managed to hold out, and when the future of liberty looked very dim—indeed, when civilization itself seemed imperiled. Yet at that moment, the novelist John Dos Passos chose to pen these words: “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”

He must have been tempted to declare, as journalists like to do, that the present situation was utterly without precedent and that the past had nothing to teach the present. After all, had the world ever before seen a more fearsome and pitiless fighting machine than the one that Adolf Hitler had assembled? But Dos Passos chose to convey an exactly opposite message. He urged that we look backward to a past that could be a source of sanity and direction, a lifeline of sustenance and instruction.