Does History Teach Lessons?

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. (George Santayana)

We learn from past mistakes only to make new ones. (A.J.P. Taylor)

Tellingly, the cliche above that seems to encourage historical studies is the one that doesn’t come from a historian. Taylor is quoted by French historian Robert Zaretsky in a new piece for History News Network that argues that the study of the past, while potentially useful, does not teach especially useful lessons to guide us in the present.

Zaretsky, Albert Camus
Zaretsky himself has not shunned these genres; here’s his biography of Albert Camus.

Zaretsky starts with an all too familiar disparity: between a decline in professional history (e.g., fewer history majors and less hiring of history professors) and ascent of popular history.

From mostly lowbrow fare on the History Channel—what we in the profession dismiss as the “Adolf and Eva” Channel—to middle and highbrow documentaries on PBS, Americans cannot have enough history. Commercial publishers, whose future also seems so dire, are betting on the past to save them: popular histories and biographies (a genre long shunned by most self-respecting academics) cover the tables of your local Barnes and Noble.

What accounts for the popularity of this kind of history? At least in part, Zaretsky suggests, it’s because we tend to think that history “offers lessons to those of us who live in the present.” And while he critiques that belief, he does understand why it “is especially attractive today: as we all try to find our footing in the blood-dimmed tide of war and terrorism, history seems to offer us safe heights.”

I wish he had had the space to consider this attraction to history more historically. Are Americans in 2014 all that unique in their desire to read lessons from the past? Did their countrymen and women in more stable times (if such exist) read fewer biographies and watch less Ken Burns? How popular is popular history in other countries?

In any case, I suspect that he’s right on both counts of his rebuttal to the “history teaches lessons” model, though I’d push back a bit against the first line of argument:

1. In response to Santayana, Zaretsky asks “which” past are we supposed to remember (lest we repeat it)? “…given the necessarily unique nature of past events, he might also have asked what purpose there is in remembering any of these pasts in order to make sense of our current situation.”

I think “unique” is too strong a word. No doubt each past is “distinctive,” but our pasts are never entirely dissimilar. (Unless we think the past is so foreign a country that its denizens do, perceive, feel, and interpret everything differently from us.) Increasingly, I wonder if present-day historians aren’t so emphatic about the need to recognize change over time that they fail to see threads of continuity running through time. But on to Zaretsky’s second, and stronger, point…

Robert Zaretsky
Robert Zaretsky – University of Houston

2. What are we to do with the fact that people who do study the past seem equally doomed to repeat its mistakes? (Or “make new ones,” per Taylor.)

Here Zaretsky rightly points to the July Crisis of 1914. Most of the men making decisions in the run-up to World War I were not ignorant of the distant or recent past; indeed, the years leading up to 1914 had featured several crises, study of which prepared statesmen and generals not at all for that summer.

With the perspective of one hundred years, perhaps we’re now able to understand the lessons of that crisis. But a recent USA Today survey of historians and foreign policy experts asking just that questions yielded results that Zaretsky derides as “platitudes.” For example, “Exhaust diplomacy before you use force” sounds good, but, he asks, “Doesn’t World War Two remind us of the costs of” doing just that?

(Coincidentally, this afternoon I’m having my Modern Europe students do a simulation of the July Crisis. I’ll be curious to see what lessons they think learn from the exercise…)

So what good is the study of the past? Where, to use an increasingly tiresome term, is our return on investment? Zaretsky turns to subjects that we’ve discussed here before:

…for us to pretend the past is a guide for the perplexed—a how-to manual for avoiding past errors—is hardly better than for us to pretend disdain for popular expectations. However, we can offer something truer, though not as immediately satisfying to students and general readers. Like our colleagues in the social sciences, historians do not have predictive powers [and perhaps they don’t either]; unlike those colleagues, however, we do have narrative powers. Our stories about the past limn the many and complex paths we took to become who we now are. No less important, these stories have practical value, though not in the sense we usually associate with the word. They offer, in effect, exercises in political and moral judgment.

We’ve already wrestled once or twice at The Pietist Schoolman with the question of whether historians ought to engage in “moral judgment” — I tend to prefer Tracy McKenzie’s notion of “moral reflection” — but Zaretsky focuses more on the kind of “political judgment” that history can produce. As in the case of Barbara Tuchman’s famous study of the July Crisis, The Guns of August, and its popularity with an American president managing another famous crisis: “At the height of the [Cuban Missile] crisis, [John F.] Kennedy told his brother Robert Kennedy: ‘I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October.'”

Tuchman, The Guns of AugustBut as Zaretsky correctly observes, 1914 and 1962 weren’t all that much alike. And in any case, Tuchman wasn’t really trying to teach a lesson:

Instead, she offered a story in which discernment and prudence were sorely lacking on all sides. Tellingly, Kennedy told his brother and Ted Sorenson that The Guns of August had taught him that the greatest danger a political leader could run in time of crisis was ‘a mistake in judgment.’ By ‘judgment,’ he no doubt understood our capacity as human beings to draw fully on perception, emotion and reason to respond to new situations in all of their specificity….

Tuchman did not provide her readers with bullet points or mere analysis, all of which is thin beer for moral and political judgment. Instead, she understood that political and moral judgment requires experience, both one’s own and that of others, distilled into narrative. Her compelling story allowed JFK to reflect on the actions of Europe’s leaders in 1914, thus deepening and sharpening his own capacity for judgment.

So what do you think?

Can you offer a counter-example to Zaretsky? Have we learned repeatable lessons from the study of the past? Or is he right that historical narrative, by sharing the experience of others, inspires personal reflection that sharpens our “capacity for judgment”?


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