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The Lessons of History We've Failed to Learn

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Bill Fawcett is the author of Doomed to Repeat: The Lessons of History We've Failed to Learn ($14.99, William Morrow)

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The Life of Reason, George Santayana

The march of history is less a steady stride than a series of stumbles and forward falls. And the stumbles the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world are taking at the beginning of the twenty-first century are neither new nor unique. Many of our most pressing problems are not original, if ancient Rome had CNN, the reruns of their news reports from the second century could be played with name changes today and would sound totally familiar to modern listeners. People are not that different from those in the past. We all have the same motivations and needs. Your great-great-great-grandparents and their leaders had to overcome their own versions of the same problems that we all wake up worrying about.

There is two ways to view the fact that history and its problems repeat themselves. One is that as a race we never learn and the problems never go away. Seeing history as a glass half empty. But that is not always true. A study of the past shows that humanity has learned a lot and come a long way in dealing with such problems as disease and terrorism. The glass is half full. On the darker side there has been less success in solving or avoiding those problems caused by greed and tribalism.

But really it is not important in learning from history if the proverbial glass is really half full or half empty. The important conclusion is that we are still filling the glass. With all of the day to day problems it is easy to forget that most of us live better than ever before and that technology and medicine continue to progress. Today's most vexing concerns have echoes and precedents all through history.

Our studying the causes and solutions to problems in the past that are similar or amazingly close to those we face today can, at the minimum, help us to avoid making the same missteps again.

Here are nine history lessons we've failed to learn:

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