Don’t Know Much About History

As the news seems to get more and more distressing with each passing day, the sense that we need to solve our problems quickly grows stronger.  The recent issue of The Economist called for swift action not only in Greece, but France, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Syria and Egypt.  In each piece, their writers also warned that things could only get much worse if the wrong step was taken.

In order to do so, we as a society have been scouring our histories for clues and insight, examining past fiscal crises, revolutions, and periods of political deadlock in the hopes of finding answers.  We not only want to know what happened the last time around, but we also (understandably) want to know how we got out of that mess in the end.  Such an interpretation of the discipline relies upon three key statements being true:

  1. In order to make use of history –and of information in general– we must take it as a given that we are not only rational beings, capable of seeing the difference between a good and a poor decision, but also beings who constantly learn from our past mistakes and are therefore equipped to make better decisions in the future.
  2. This also depends upon a notion of improved, forward progress and that anything to the contrary is going “backwards in time” to a period of less sophistication, which means that we won’t be able to tackle challenging problems.
  3.  It assumes that the discipline itself can be impartial, objective, and scrubbed clean of bias in such a way as to allow the clear cut study of cause and effect, which then helps one learn from their mistakes and move forward.

However, if these are indeed true, how come we seemingly continue to fail to not only avoid disaster but take steps that cause others to cry out that we’re making the situation worse and not better?  Why any of this, when we are consciously studying history for its secrets -and have so many obvious reminders and records to help us illuminate the past?

First, I think our flawed understanding of the uses of history is due to the fact we’re still in the thrall of the idea that man is not only rational but always learns from his mistakes.  This idea is largely, though not entirely, a hallmark of Europe’s Age of Enlightenment.  Then, the idea of man being a “rational” human being, one not predetermined to sin for all eternity but capable of knowing how not to sin, entered into the wider public discourse and subsequently gained an incredible amount of social and intellectual cache.  If man was truly no longer bound to his base instincts, then he could not only learn the difference between right and wrong, but he could also avoid it through learned behavior.  In particular, by studying the mistakes of past men (it was largely men) one could learn to recognize any of these follies in themselves and successfully, steer themselves clear of error.

Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft. –Winston Churchill

More tellingly  this type of thinking has not only influenced our study of history, but has also changed our understanding of other disciplines and systems,  such as the judicial and penal system, our tax laws (incentives and breaks–who wouldn’t take them, right?), the public and the private sectors, and even in the way we think people make decisions.  While this last idea is being challenged by behavioral science, the ubiquity for one to act rationally and avoid mistake makes it incredibly difficult to view the past–and by extension, the discipline of history–in a different light.  Hence, we continue to pound our heads against the wall, agonizing over our decisions and wondering how on earth we keep making mistake after mistake in light of our rational brains and capacity for learning.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  –George Santayana

Secondly, there is also this sense that history, and by extension humanity, is also a story of improved progress.  This notion, admittedly a rather ancient one, gained a tremendous amount of currency in late 19th and early 20th century industrial societies which, having been radically transformed by constant and consistent mechanical developments and improvements (to say nothing of evolution and “social Darwinism”), came to believe that our path is a linear one. Although other scholars, philosophers, historians, and sociologists argued against this idea, it has dominated our wider way of thinking to the point that we must now study our past to also see how far we’ve come, how much “better off” we now are, and what we can do to avoid sliding “backwards” in time.   When this idea of progress is married to the idea of the rational man, both our sense of self and our perception of our ability to impact events in the way that we want, are affected, though not always to the end that we originally thought.

Again, if we keep seeing ourselves along some line of improved progression, we therefore become incredibly frustrated when all current events seem to suggest the contrary.  Instead of seeing history as a collection of different and disparate events all occurring simultaneously according to their own whims and timelines, we have elected to confine ourselves to a narrow perspective that, by its very nature, can’t deal with the actual reality.  This in, turn, leads to the third point I wish to make.

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it. –Winston Churchill

History, by its very nature, can’t be both impartial enough and exact enough to allow ourselves the ability to critically examine cause and effect but also construct a reliable narrative of linear progress.  It is not only made up of multiple narratives, perspectives, and points of view all unfolding at the same time, but each of those narratives are also subjective to each viewer.  Two people can read the same document, like the United States Constitution, in completely different ways which end up shaping not only how the document itself is viewed but how it is to be interpreted.  On top of that, long accepted narratives or documents (for instance, the Bible) can, with the discovery of a different version of a single manuscript, be challenged on numerous grounds (the Gnostic Gospels).  As such, the narrative that ends up as the accepted telling owes a tremendous amount to the ones who control the narrative.  Politicians, dictators, companies and humans in general understand this and manipulate it as best as they can in order to guard the supremacy of their version.

So what then, is the role of history?  If possessing knowledge does not prevent misery and the notion of progress is just one interpretation of events, and history itself is inherently malleable, what is one to do?  Should the discipline, and those who adhere to it, be discredited as a result?

Personally, I think that would be akin to sticking one’s head in the sand and hoping everything would all just go away; if history has taught us anything, it’s that it moves on whether we’re paying attention or not.  Instead, what we ought to take away from history is that it is, in many ways, a mirror of the very richness of our own experience.  Like mirrors, we often see in it what we want to see, and ignore the rest but I do believe that if we recognize this behavior, we can come to a better understanding of why we interpret the past in the ways that we do –and how different narratives and interpretations can come about.  This is one of the basic key skills of being a historian; if we’re to continue as students of history, we should be taking this principle to heart.

Returning to my first example, The Economist was looking at Egypt et al., through their lens of history (economic history) and viewing the turmoil as one big economic disaster about to get even worse.  Yet their particular view doesn’t mean that there are not positives within the same stories.  Dynastic troubles in Saudi Arabia and a 30% youth unemployment could be a sign of tremendous social change and economic growth; an elected Egyptian President, even if he does belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, could be just one in a new string of democratically elected officials in a country long on strongmen and short on public participation.  In the end, we’re going to have to deal with all the various interpretations (and perspectives) at hand if we’re ever going to actually going to make sense of and understand our present, before we go taking any next steps.