A friend recently re-posted an old piece from The Onion, in which the nation’s “Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions.”
Does history matter? Every couple months there’s a newspaper article about how little people know about history–here’s an example, in which the Brits make fun of us for knowing nothing. [1. Notice that it starts with Christina Aguilera forgetting the lyrics to the national anthem. That’s not really history, I’d say, and it’s a terrible anthem anyway and we ought to replace it with America the Beautiful. ]
Americans don’t know basic facts about their history! to which I’d say mostly “so what?” Most people don’t need to know anything at all about history to function perfectly well, and if they need to know something specific, they can easily and quickly look it up. You don’t need to know about the war of 1812 to sell mortgage bonds or work at the Amazon warehouse. Deep knowledge of the acts of Benjamin Harrison is of practically no value to anyone. Ideally, I think everyone should have a Ph.D. in US history, but ideally, I think everyone should know everything. What’s good about knowing history as opposed, say, knowing physics or grammar or music theory?
History rarely if ever helps you “avoid the mistakes of the past,” because conditions in the present are never quite the same, even if they can be made to look similar. Any historian knows that most “bad” decisions either only turn out to be bad in hindsight, or else could easily have been good decisions if one or two things random had turned out differently. It’s not like there is some standard of “good” that historians guard in a vault, against which all acts are measured. Having historians on your decision team is not, I don’t think, likely to help you avoid making mistakes.
But history is really good for strengthening arguments. Why did we have to “take out” Saddam Hussein? Because history shows you can’t appease dictators! Proponents of the Iraq invasion constantly invoked Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, and the “appeasement” of Hitler. But at this moment, it’s very easy to say that knowledge of the past failed to prevent us from making a stupid mistake.
And of course, in 2003 there were lots of people using the evidence of history to argue against invading Iraq, talking about the futility of nation building and the ungovernability of historically artificial states. It’s not that one side was wrong and the other was right: it’s that history was equally useful to both sides. If you do what The Onion suggests, and listen to historians, you are going to get a range of opinions, pretty much exactly the same range of opinions you’ll get from non-historians. It’s good for strengthening arguments, but not particularly good for assuring good decisions.
So what’s it good for? I’d say it’s good for offering you alternative ways of thinking. History is a repository of the astounding creativity and resourcefulness of people. It’s a record of the multiple ways people come up with to solve basic human dilemmas. It shows how malleable we are, how powerful ideas are in shaping our behavior. It frees us, ironically, from the inevitability of the present by demonstrating how things that look “natural” and timeless and inevitable are actually contingent and fragile and don’t have to be.
If you study history the world you navigate through becomes a deeper, richer, and more interesting place. If you don’t know anything about, say, plants, you just drive through a world of green stuff. But if you know a lot about plants, all the green stuff becomes more interesting and varied. it becomes legible in a different way. As you drive along the freeway, you understand why there’s a freeway; you understand the political, social, economic and technological forces that led to that freeway being there. History is going to make even the most mundane stuff, deeper, richer, and more interesting.
Does it need to do more than that?