The Economist: The Future as History

An often misquoted dictum from Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana is "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." While we often mangle the words, the gist of the thought is familiar to most of us. Moreover, we can see evidence of its validity in a number of contexts every day.

Learning from past mistakes is relevant to future economic performance. At an individual level, experience drives economic decisions ranging from what job to take or where to invest. Anyone who invested heavily during the height of the dot.com frenzy in the late 1990s, for instance, is probably more cautious about overloading his/her portfolio in the hot stocks of the moment.

Companies also use past results to make future plans. Many Texas banks and builders were hit hard during the late 1980s, when the bottom fell out of the state's housing market, and it's not surprising that their cautious outlook helped us largely skip the major housing bubble many markets experienced five to 10 years ago (and are still working out from under even now).

As a society, we try to learn from past errors. The extreme oil dependence of much of the state during the 1980s led to very difficult times when activity dried up for a while, contributing to Texas expanding its presence in technology, medicine and a host of other sectors and systematically and continually pursuing thoughtful economic development efforts.

Ideally, we can learn from the past experience of others, rather than having to live through hard lessons ourselves. Sometimes, there are historians among us with a unique ability to pull together wisdom from the past and the events of today in a way that can help us productively embrace the future. My friend, T.R. (Ted) Fehrenbach, the iconic and undisputed grand master among Texas historians, was such a man, and his recent death at age 88 is a loss to all. For those of us who are passionate about our rugged state and its legacy, he is the very embodiment of Texas history in his own right.

Fehrenbach was born in San Benito and graduated from Princeton University with honors in the 1940s.

He was an author of some 20 books, with "Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans" perhaps the most famous. This magnificent tome is considered a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the state and its people, with hundreds of pages of wonderful and fascinating detail written in a prose that is simultaneously engaging and approachable.

I would also recommend it to anyone hoping to shape the future of Texas in positive ways, which can only be effectively accomplished with an abiding understanding of its past.

Fehrenbach served as head of the Texas Historical Commission for some 20 years, and Gov. Perry named him commissioner emeritus in 2001. Even in the relatively few words of a weekly column in the San Antonio Express News, which he wrote until just a few months ago, he drew on his deep knowledge and meticulous research of history and the people and events of the past to shed light on the world today. He wasn't afraid to take on controversial topics, commenting on everything from the purpose of education to terrorism to the role of government.

For those of us who occasionally had the privilege of hearing his stirring words in conversations over the years, he was nothing short of inspirational. You might disagree with him, and I occasionally did, but you doubted neither the integrity and forthrightness of his efforts nor the passion of his words.

In addition to his books about Texas, he authored a history - many would say the definitive history - of the Comanche people. His book about the Korean War is considered one of the best and has been required reading at institutions training future military leaders, including West Point. Its title, "This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness," is vintage Fehrenbach: calling it exactly like he sees it with impeccable scholarly support.

Fehrenbach prided himself on making people think, and he did that exceptionally well. By encouraging a thought process informed by the past, he helped shape the future and will continue to do so for generations to come. You simply couldn't read one of his paragraphs without feeling compelled to devour the next. He will be greatly missed, yet his legacy will endure.

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (perrymangroup.com).