A current advertising campaign uses the words “Life comes at you fast” as a caution or warning to be prepared. “Don’t blink” offers a similar admonition to pay attention lest you miss something. Both phrases presume an awareness of who and where we are as well as of who and where we were.
Are/were — the passage of time is a curious thing. New Year’s greetings frequently include a comment on how quickly the past year came and went, how “time flies” (not only when you’re having fun): children grow up too fast, beloved pets grow old too soon. Life comes at you fast.
All of this is complicated by our sense of history. Americans are often admonished for having a poor understanding of their nation’s history. In 2018, a survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation observed that only one of three Americans is capable of passing the U.S. citizenship test. These findings, however, are not new. The Bradley Commission on History in Schools was formed in 1987 in response to concern over the quality and quantity of the history being taught in American schools. Yet cuts to college curricula often find history courses, majors, even entire departments on the chopping block.
History matters. It offers a lens to view the present and look forward to the future, providing the perspective and context so necessary for citizens to understand where we have come as a people and why certain themes repeat themselves over the course of time. “To be ignorant of history is to be a child forever,” Cicero wrote.
Each of us is the product of our own personal history. And who among us does not fear losing the memories of our history? More than any other disease, Americans fear the cognitive impairment associated with dementia or Alzheimer’s. But a personal need to retain one’s memory seems not to transfer to the national history. “We cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln said. “We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.” Don’t we want to know how we as a people got to this point in time and why?
The same question can be asked of institutional history. We like to recount the story of Phi Kappa Phi’s founding in 1897, and without question the years since have seen marked growth. One significant development was the creation of the Phi Kappa Phi Foundation in 1969, incorporated even before the Society itself to create an endowment to secure the financial future of the organization. Like the fellowships it funds, the Foundation began small and grew exponentially as donors responded to appeals to support the mission of the Society through contributions and bequests. The Foundation, like the Society, got to where it is as a result of not only keeping its eyes on the future but also remembering the past, and the focus common to both: a commitment to lifelong learning. In fifty years, it hasn’t blinked.