‘We Look Back to Think Forward’: Why We Must Study History

In a powerful Ted Talk, Jeremy Suri, a professor of Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, discusses the lack of imagination in popular culture today compared to the 1930s, even though, back then, there were no electricity lines and no telephones lines in rural areas. He draws on the biographies of Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Franklin Roosevelt, who imagined a very different world and were “not willing to accept the world as it is.”  They built community and imbibed “an ethic of self-improvement.”

Roosevelt created the New Deal, devised the Atlantic Charter in 1941 and implemented and the modern system of international law. Johnson ended segregation and tried to build a Great Society that cared for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. Reagan, as president, was still a supporter of FDR’s New Deal and did not roll back the Great Society. He talked about America as a single community “brought together by faith and optimism in their society, and making their society better. And even as a Republican president, Ronald Reagan invested in that,” Suri observed.

The generation that included Ronald Reagan decided, when they returned home from war, that they would consume less, they would pay more taxes, and they would invest more in society, not simply to “sit on their wealth, and buy second and third homes.” They would find the salaries demanded by the one percent today to be “silly.” Instead, they invested in the GI Bill, which increased taxation, reduced consumption, so that servicemen and women could get federal aid, to go to university. An entire class of middle class citizens –eight million of them — could go to university who could never afford it before. And two million would get subsidized loans for homes that they could afford.

The “greatest generation” recognized that community is not organic, community has to be built, he asserted. Innovation needs community. “No one invents anything alone. Everyone needs a community when they invent,” Suri said. “The people of Jack Reagan’s and Ronald Reagan’s generations invested in community. Have we invested in community, we must ask ourselves?”

Drill Deeper:

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