Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A thought about the uses of history

Historians don't like to forecast, preferring to study the past. They point out that the way we see the past depends on who we are now.

Perhaps one thing that we can ask of historians is to identify situations that people faced in the past that are analogous to situations we face today. Ideally the historians should point out the analogous factors and those which are different. In that context it would be interesting to know what people did and how their actions worked out.

And of course, the ideal would be to explore a number of analogous situations in this way, comparing and contrasting the actions that were taken, the outcomes, and the similarities and differences from the current situation.

Of course, doing so would require not only a knowledge of history, but current knowledge. Looking at U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, it might seem that our leaders have neither the historical nor the current knowledge needed to make good policy.

I believe it is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond that makes the point that one of the major advantages of Europeans meeting with American Indians was that the Europeans had schools and literature, and had learned about statecraft. the Americans emperors had more armed men, but less historical knowledge.

Perhaps we need to make it a practice to always elect people who respect history and knowledge of the world, and who assure that they are surrounded by people who know more than they do about the problems and places under debate.

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