“How Do We Learn from History?”

I found this great piece over on the American Historical Association, and thought you all may be interested in it as well.  Below is just a segment of the article.  

But what about the uses of history in a narrower, more pragmatic sense? Does the past provide lessons for the present, guidance for the future? In addition to telling us who we are, does history help us know what to do? I suspect that not many of us still share the confidence expressed by Lord Acton in his inaugural lecture of 1895 that “the science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the streams of history, like the grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future.\” (Essays on Freedom and Power, New York, 1957, 25–26). Many of us doubt that the facts of the past are as discrete and quickly recognizable as grains of gold glittering in the sand; nor are we sure that the truth of past experience can so easily be deployed as an instrument for action.

However professionally skeptical we may be about learning from the past, there is no doubt that we try to do it all the time. We constantly tell stories about the past to our students, friends, children—and to ourselves—stories that are supposed to convey moral and practical lessons about how to behave. Physicians compile histories of their patients’ diseases in order to make diagnoses and determine therapies. Military units write after action reports that provide the basis for assessing the reasons for success or failure. And, of course, historical lessons are part of every political discussion and debate. Again and again, our political leaders use the past to warn, admonish, and inspire the public; to criticize their opponents; and to justify their own policies. Historical analogies, comparisons, and metaphors are all around us; they are a source of collective wisdom on which we must rely. It is unlikely that we could live without them even if we wanted to.

If you want to keep reading, check it out here.

-Phil

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Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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