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If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.

1st October 2020

‘If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past’. (Baruch Spinoza 1632-77)

By examining what happened in the past, we can get an idea of what has worked before and adapt it to our present situation. We can also see what didn’t work in the past, and try to avoid it, or at least change it to be less of a difficulty this time around.

It really is that simple. Learn from your experiences, or those of others. It might not be able to get you the desired result, but you can certainly get something else, rather than the same thing again and again. The trouble is that too often we are resistant to change even when things aren’t working out and we end up simply doing more of what doesn’t work. As WH Auden once said in ‘Apropos of Many Things’: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die’.

And learning from the past is not so straightforward. When we look at the past whether it be our personal history or that of the country within which we live or indeed the whole world, we come to view it through a particular set of spectacles which is probably why often we fail to learn important lessons. Those spectacles are made up of the stories of our past which fit into our cultural narratives, so we need to dig a little deeper and listen to other voices from people with other experiences of our history. Through this we may start to gain greater clarity on the past and the lessons that could and should be learned from it.

This month is Black History Month, and it is a good time to look at the issues which have arisen from the Black Lives Matter campaign and how it calls us to look at our received  past through different lenses. In Oxford we have witnessed protests for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue and the Pitt Rivers museum has chosen to remove certain exhibits from its collection. However these actions are viewed, they have opened up important conversations in private and public about Britain’s colonial past, issues of conscious and unconscious racism and the need to hear a wider range of voices in the telling of our national story. There are some who would like to silence certain opinions but erasing voices would be both wrong and dangerous and is often what happens prior to the establishment of a totalitarian government. So let us welcome expression of diversity in thought and opinion and open up our conversations to new perspectives, so we truly might create a present different from the past.

Christine Crossley

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