Sunday, September 05, 2010

Final comment on "Dangerous Minds"

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library Chronicles)

In the conclusion of her book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan reiterates the theme -- that the uses of history are to be found all around us, and while many are very helpful others represent abuses.

I was impressed by her statement that "history relies on a skeptical turn of mind". That is the statement of a professional historian, and echoes the attitude of the scientist that science relies on a skeptical turn of mind. The appropriate use of historical analogies in decision making certainly requires a skeptical turn of mind to be done well!

MacMillan also suggests that a major lesson of history is that we should all practice intellectual humility. There are certainly abundant examples in history and in the book in which smart, serious people have worked mightily on important decisions, bringing to bear considerable knowledge of history, and resulting in decisions which in historical retrospect appear not only incorrect but bad.

History must be understood in light of the saying "the past is another country". One can not understand how serious leaders in America's past could honestly support slavery or the expulsion of native Americans from the lands that they had occupied without understanding that those leaders belonged to a different culture with different beliefs and different values.

I have lived in three countries and worked in more than 35 countries and through that experience have come to a visceral understanding that beliefs and values really do differ from society to society. I suspect that studying history and learning about the otherness of the past is a help in understanding the otherness of foreign lands. I suspect the reverse is true, and that thoughtful travel helps one to understand the otherness of the past. Both experience with other cultures and other times also helps one to understand that people are people everywhere and everywhen, and often in need of the support of others -- as are we all.

My previous postings on this book are:

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