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History lessons: Part 1

Updated Monday, 21st January 2008

History's lessons can be really obvious - but not always helpful

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More years ago than it is decent to recall, when I first started teaching undergraduates, I would sometimes ask them why they thought we should study history. Unfairly sprung upon them, perhaps, some would take refuge in the axiom that ‘we can learn lessons from history’. Pressed harder, they might come up with such insights as ‘history teaches us that dictators should never be appeased’ or ‘the lesson of history is that democratic regimes ought not to negotiate with terrorists’. The first, I imagine, was a peculiarly British legacy from the Second World War: in particular the morally awkward status of the Chamberlain government’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler. The second may have been a consequence of the ‘troubles’ in Ulster that were, at the time, frequent headline news.

Both statements were thoroughly understandable, but just as thoroughly wrong. In the case of the former, it was easy enough to point out that if the British state had more effectively ‘appeased’ the dictatorships of Stalin and Mussolini then World War Two would likely have been averted. And if nothing else, the late success of the Northern Ireland peace process seems to have mortally undermined the latter. (Though I’m not suggesting that governments should in consequence be assiduously soothing the fits of all tyrants or laying on tea and biscuits for the most deranged terrorist.) Those two old saws are less repeated these days, thankfully. Still, my suspicion has lingered that, for many people, history’s utility lies in the great social and moral prescriptions it can allegedly offer its students.

I decided to test this hypothesis with a small experiment, which you may like to try yourselves. I googled the phrase ‘the lesson of history’, to see what the world's favourite search engine would come up with. And I must admit that amongst the almost 65,000 results were several that appeared quite sensible, or at least arguable. Nevertheless, history was also conjured up to defend a whole variety of dubious proclamations. The panoramic seemed in vogue:
"The inevitable lesson of history is that, when you change just one thing, you end up changing everything."

As did the audacious:
"The lesson of history is that there is no economic force on this globe that is stronger than free people and their desire to create a better life."

And even the potentially hazardous got a good look in:
"The lesson of history is that when doctors start telling patients what they should and should not eat, patients would be well advised to ignore them."

Canadian soldiers prepare to load onto CH-47 Helicopters at Kandahar Air Field Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Staff Sgt. Robert Hyatt/ US Department of Defense
Stay or go? Canadian troops in Iraq

However, what struck me was the continuing popularity of the type of prescriptive assertion sprung from the same seed as truisms about resisting dictators or defying terrorists. For instance, what did history have to say about one of the most debated contemporary issues - the conflict in Iraq? It seemed from my results pretty clear that history required America’s troops to stay in:
"The lesson of history is that walking away will cost more, whether in Iraq or elsewhere."

Or get out:
"The lesson of history and the solution [to problems in Iraq] is pretty simple: The US has to withdraw."

And history’s prevarication on contentious topics did not end there. The capricious sprite incessantly served up contradictory advice. It taught us that free trade was the best solution to world poverty, although it was only ever beneficial for rich people; that dictatorships were always ephemeral, but likely to be long-lived without foreign intervention to remove them; and that America’s military strength was a mighty deterrent to and cause of war. In short, history was evoked to support all manner of idiosyncratic, hectoring, or unshaded opinions. (I'm not denying that some of these opinions might contain a little truth, but what they're not is 'lessons of history'.) 

What does this tell us about the discipline, though? Does it simply lend weight to the idea (also fashionably repeated in my Google search results) that history provides us with no lessons at all? That - beyond the subject being rich, complex, and interesting in its own right - there is no reason to study it? Has history no social function? As it happens, history does provide ‘lessons’ for those who care to study it, although they are hardly ever of the rigid prescriptive kind that I’ve been talking about above. What some of them are will be the subject of the next part of this blog.

Taking it further:

Related courses from the Open University:

Total war & social change - explore the relationship between war and the transformation of society that took place during the first half of the twentieth century. You’ll examine questions about possible relationships between total war and social, cultural and geopolitical change, and includes topics such as: European governments; societies and armies in 1914; the nature of warfare and differences in the conduct of those wars; social developments in Western democracies; the holocaust; the division of Europe after World War II; women and war; film and propaganda; and war, literature and the arts.

Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900 - the problems and methodologies of history are well covered in this OU course, which gives students a very broad introduction to the study of history. It highlights three big historical themes - changing beliefs, producers and consumers, and state formation - and looks at how they altered from the medieval period through to the nineteenth century. Amongst the topics covered are slavery and the slave trade, the European Reformations, Imperialism, the French Revolution, and the Wars of the Roses.





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