In Memoriam: Daniel Boorstin
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, remembering historian Daniel Boorstin, who died this weekend in Washington. His books sold in the millions and covered many aspects of cultural and political history, from the evolution of clocks to the great age of discovery. His book “The Americans: The Democratic Experience” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
A year later, Boorstin became head of the Library of Congress, and held the post until 1987. I talked to him as he prepared to leave that job. Here is an excerpt from the interview, beginning with a question about his role at the library.
DANIEL BOORSTIN: The Librarian of Congress is supposed to help people learn, and not preach to them or even teach them. And I think that pursuing your question that history is the cautionary science, I’m very wary of people who give us the lessons of history or the laws for the future of cultures. But I do think one thing the historian can do is to warn us against the overgeneralizations of social scientists, politicians, preachers, all those who think they’re in on the secrets of the future.
But the historian has a hard enough time unraveling the secrets of the past, and might actually be called a prophet in reverse. He is trying to discover what was there, which is almost as difficult to find in the past as it is in the future.
JIM LEHRER: What’s the point of discovering the past?
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, I think a Dutch historian once said that the point of studying history is not so that we can make a better decision tomorrow, it’s so that we can be wiser forever. And it’s wisdom which cannot be proven to be cost effective, which really justifies the pursuit of knowledge and the Library of Congress.
You know, there is a difference, Jim, between the problems of self discovery in a totalitarian society and a democratic society. Totalitarian societies generally exaggerate their virtues. They tend to think better of themselves than they ought to. And democratic societies — a society like ours, a free society — tends to exaggerate its vices, and to think worse of itself than it ought to. And if we had our choice, I would certainly choose the latter. I think it’s much better to exaggerate the evils in your society than to be illusioned about your virtues.
JIM LEHRER: You have spent many years of your professional life looking back, as you said, but you spent the rest of your life living in the present. And something must be hitting you that, you know, there’s something has struck you about the past versus the present, has it not?
DANIEL BOORSTIN: Well, what impresses me is man’s resilience. I think I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. I think that because I’m also impressed with the mystery of man and his possibilities.
In my book, “The Discoverers,” one of my themes was that the great obstacle to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. And I think that the same thing is true in the present work I’m writing on the creators, on the arts. I think the hallmark of a work of art is that we can never discover in advance what it holds. There’s a mystery in the works of creation and discovery. And I think that to grasp that mystery, to be prepared for the unexpected, is the task of those of us who are helping others learn about the world.
JIM LEHRER: Daniel Boorstin, speaking to someone on the NewsHour in 1987. He died this weekend at age 89.