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The Value of the Past
       Science is not merely a set of facts. It is an active subject and involves the interactions of everything that surrounds us and how those things fit together. Similarly, it is also important to note that science has developed sequentially, building on what was known before. This aspect needs to be included if students are to gain a good, solid education, and an honest understanding of science is as important as any other component of one’s education. This understanding of science lets us interact rationally with the world in which we live. As H.G. Wells stated over a century ago, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
       This comprehension of the science that has influenced our lives is critical if we hope to deal with such issues as climate change, an expanding population and environmental issues such as endangered species and the drought and hunger that are having an impact on much of the world. These issues are all interrelated and cannot be solved individually. As the environmentalist René Dubos noted in So Human an Animal: “Knowledge of the past is essential for the understanding of life in the present and in the future, not because history repeats itself—which it never does exactly—but because the past is incorporated in all manifestations of the present and will thereby condition the future.”
       In T. Allsop’s Recollections, written in 1831, Samuel Taylor Coleridge stated: “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But…the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us!” However, we should not want to correct the past. Instead, we want to use that knowledge to be able to make choices that can steer is in a direction to compensate for those errors.
       As Christopher Paolini said in Brisingr, “…study at every opportunity the lessons history has to teach us, for they may help you with the problems of today.” To do so, we have to learn what truthfully occurred in the past – how advances in science were made and the errors that occurred while making those advances. Things did not flow smoothly and the path of advancement was often difficult. Too make books – and movies – give the image that science flowed naturally, progressively leading from one advancement to the next. As James Gleick stated in Genius, a biography of Richard Feynman, “Feynman resented the polished myths of most scientific history, submerging the false steps and halting uncertainties under a surface of orderly intellectual progress….”
       The problems we are facing are critical and difficult. Everyone must be well educated if we hope to resolve them. However, it is also fundamental that we do so with clear heads. As Lao Tzu said over 2500 years ago: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
       To close with a more light-hearted view, I would like to share a quote attributed to Owen Lee Pomeroy that is too often true. “Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson. You find the present tense and the past perfect.”              
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