How Much Can We Really Learn from History?

“Why do we bother to study the past?”

Like many other teachers, I sometimes begin the new school year by putting this question to my eager young pupils. It could be considered The Great Challenge of All History Teachers Everywhere—getting kids to see the relevance of something that happened a thousand years ago, when they (like most of us) are much more focused on what happened fifteen minutes ago. To make things more difficult, fifteen years is all most of them have in the way of life experience. It’s a small window of context.

Most students dutifully respond with some version of the old cliché that “We study the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them again in the future.”

For me, this answer does nothing to elicit the little bubbles of history teacher joy that some might expect. On the contrary, it often shows just how far we have to go.

This is not because I necessarily share Hegel’s pessimistic counter that the only thing “we learn from history (is) that we do not learn from history.” The problem is, different people draw different lessons from the past. The Great Depression is often cited as proof both that government intervention in the economy works, and that it doesn’t. In more recent history, some claim Obama’s economic policies helped to avert a second Great Depression, while others counter that they needlessly prolonged the Great Recession and continue to hinder robust economic growth. Who knows which view historians will ultimately choose.

Even when we attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past, we often focus on the last mistake and not the ones that precipitated it. The satirical magazine The Onion succeeds brilliantly in illustrating just how short-term our memories are in this hilarious article, entitled: “Obama Assures Americans that This Will Not Be Another 1456 Siege of Belgrade.” Enjoy the following delicious morsels:

“I can promise you this: My administration and I will not repeat the mistakes of Sultan Mehmed II,” Obama continued. “Believe me, we have all learned the lessons from the campaign to subjugate the Kingdom of Hungary following the fall of Constantinople.”

“When I heard we were getting involved in Syria, right away I thought, ‘Well, here we go, it’s 1456 Belgrade all over again,’” said Seattle resident Matt Haggerty, 42, who, like millions of Americans, says he “in no way supports the idea” of getting entangled in any military campaign even remotely similar to the Ottoman invasion of the Catholic Balkans. “Look, we all know what happened in Belgrade: Mehmed II thought he had everything under control, but Hungarian nobleman John Hunyadi organized a peasant army of roughly 50,000 soldiers and relied on the strength of the city’s castle to breach the Ottoman’s formidable naval blockade, which prevented any further imperial advances into Europe for roughly 70 years. And frankly, like most of my friends and neighbors, I see very little separating what we’re about to do in Syria and what the Anatolian corps did during their all-out assault on the Belgrade fortress from the Danube River. ”

For more serious evidence of the limits of learning from history, look no further than the World Wars. Hitler “studied” the causes of German failure in World War I and arrived at conclusions so disastrously flawed that they resulted in an even more destructive war. World War I provides a cautionary tale against rushing into war; World War II against appeasing aggressors. If we really learned from the lessons of the past, World War I would have remained “The War to End All Wars,” instead of just the first act in a blood-drenched century featuring total warfare and genocide.

A basic understanding of human nature assures us that greed, mistrust, and pride are not going extinct anytime soon; thus, neither is war or the immeasurable human suffering it causes. Those who predict that a better understanding of history will lead to its end are fooling themselves.

I think a better answer to the question of “Why study history?” is that the past is capable of providing a broader context in which to better understand our own lives. Most of us will walk the earth for at most a hundred years, while mankind has been around for perhaps 100,000. Many of the challenges of our times are not unique, but paralleled at various points in history. While we may not succeed in avoiding the same mistakes as our ancestors, we can still learn from them, but only if we are very careful.

Whenever history is called upon to settle present debates, it is important to remember that the people of the past were real people just like us, with all their desires and fears, shortcomings and virtues. We too often resurrect their ghosts just to be used as mouthpieces for the advancement of our own agendas.

Mark Twain insightfully observed that there are only three types of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This quote illustrates that sometimes stating a supposed “fact” can often obscure a larger truth. It is just this sort of danger in which amateur historians (which includes most politicians and commentators) can find themselves.

We need real historians to correct our narrow misconceptions and short-sightedness. Even then, we can never fully escape the limits of our own time and perspective, not that this invalidates the effort. If I didn’t believe in the many benefits of a responsible study of the past, I would have chosen a different line of work.

In my next post on the topic of the usefulness of history, I will discuss what this means in light of President Obama’s recent comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast.

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3 thoughts on “How Much Can We Really Learn from History?

  1. So I’m reading Isaiah Berlin, historian of ideas from All Souls, Oxford ’57-’67. He then went on to find and preside another college at the University after that. In one essay from the collection, he pits Descartes’ denigration of history (history is only useful insofar that it provides evidence we can copy from the highest civilizations) and another renaissance view of history that tries identifying the world as its inhabitants did when living. If you’ll forgive my large quote, I think you’ll find it intriguing:
    “[T]o understand history is to understand what men made of the world in which they found themselves, what they demanded of it, what their felt needs, aims, ideals were. He seeks to recover their vision of it, he asks what wants, what questions, what aspirations determined a society’s view of reality; and he thinks that he has created a new method which will reveal to him the categories in terms of which men thought and acted and changed themselves and their worlds. This kind of knowledge is not knowledge of facts or of logical truths, provided by observation or the sciences or deductive reasoning; no is it knowledge of how to do things; no the knowledge provided by faith, based on divine revelation, in which Vico professed belief (he was Roman Catholic by the way).It is more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his character, of his ways of thought or action, the intuitive sense of nuances of personality or feelings or ideas which Montaigne describes so well, and which Montesquieu took into account.”
    He goes on to say that this is an imaginative and grueling task of a priori truth that makes history more than the sum of objects saved in a museum. The purpose of this is to recognize that history is cyclical and that each culture (a term he may have himself coined, but at least first utilized rigorously) is to be judged by its own standards. Of course this opens him up to the accusation of relativism; however, it is much more complicated than that.
    All this is intriguing because Vico was writing at a time where men tended to imagine ideal, perfect societies based off their renaissance hubris, yet Vico considered that flawed thinking.
    Moral of this long reply? READ ISAIAH BERLIN THIS SUMMER! He may have a huge impact on how you could approach your instruction.

    • Josh, thanks for your reply and suggestion. I will definitely have to check him out. I think the philosophy behind the study of history is fascinating as it relates to the larger quest for Truth. I like the comparison of history to the knowledge we gain from getting to know a friend. It is good to talk to other people and learn from their perspectives; likewise, history allows us to engage and appreciate the great (and even common) men and women of the past and benefit from them as well. Berlin is now on my list. 🙂

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