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History lessons: Part 2

Updated Wednesday, 5th March 2008
What can we actually learn from history - besides history itself? Does the story of overcoming cholera, for example have lessons for today?

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Here is a series of statements, arranged in order of ‘gravity’. Which do you believe?

  1. Global warming is a real, man-made phenomenon that threatens the future of the planet.
  2. The spread of democracy is the only way, in the long run, to ensure a more stable and peaceful world.
  3. It is inevitable that China will become the world’s next economic global superpower.
  4. Obesity in the UK is set to reach epidemic proportions in the next couple of decades.
  5. British international sporting teams (especially in football, cricket, and rugby) are suffering from a lack of talent because of increasing numbers of foreign players in professional club sport.

I hope you agree that what each assertion has in common with its neighbours is that it is, if not universally, then at least widely believed (in Britain, anyway) at present. Indeed, perhaps you agreed with all of them; certainly it’s likely that you believe some. And you would not be in the least stupid to do so: they all seem perfectly plausible. There is, though, a reasonable chance that at least one of them will be proved wanting in the future. I have no idea which, though I have serious doubts about at least two of them.

Now, since this blog is about the lessons of history, does that discipline offer any indications about the truth of our five cases? Or does it suggest appropriate ways in which humankind should respond to any of these? No, it doesn’t.

To begin with, there are really no comparable situations in history that can enlighten us about things like global warming or obesity in Western Europe. But, even if analogous circumstances had existed in the past, they would – as I said in the first part of this blog – surely tell us very little about the ‘right’ courses of action that should be taken in each of the above instances. And yet I insisted that history does offer its pupils lessons, and I’ll go so far as to say that these lessons can be applied to this whole series of paradigms. To explain why, I’m going to ask you to think like a sixteenth century Christian for a second. Okay…are you in a suitably renaissance frame of mind?

Now: does our planet go round the sun, or does the sun go round the earth? If you said the former, then perhaps you’re not thinking hard enough. An ample majority of people – if they thought about it at all – believed the latter. Indeed, the heliocentric view of the heavens was considered to be heretical (as Galileo found to his cost in 1633), since it appeared to contradict Biblical scripture. Though Galileo was not the first to challenge the ascendant view, he was certainly the most famous and influential of those who sought to disprove geocentrism. But that did not mean that his theories were accepted quickly – in fact, the Catholic Church did not officially accept them until two centuries after his death. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in destroying a presumption that millions of people in the sixteenth century (and beyond) took for granted, and he is correctly held to be one of the founders of modern science in consequence.

Maybe renaissance Europe is too distant to picture – so let us move to late eighteenth century Britain. It was around this time that the established theory that explained the spread of disease (contagion: that is, that disease was passed from one person to another) began to be replaced by the notion that sickness was the product of polluted air. In a very simple sense, diseases came from ‘miasmas’: dirty environments, bad smells, and so forth. Admittedly, small numbers of contagionists remained, but by the 1830s the miasma hypothesis dominated scientific thinking: being happily repeated as established truth in the press, government reports, and all manner of media. But, as we now know, this belief was wrong. It was not until the work of sceptical pioneers like John Snow (who identified the water-pump that was dispensing neat cholera to the residents of Soho in the 1850s) and Louis Pasteur that germ theory began to overturn the prevailing paradigm.

A plaque marking the spot where John Snow made the connection between water supply and cholera
A plaque marking the point where John Snow made the link between cholera and Soho's poor water supply.

Perhaps those two examples are too scientific, so let me give you an illustration in a socio-political vein. From the eighteenth through to the early twentieth century, it was commonplace for the residents of western European countries to assume that African societies were ‘naturally’ uncivilised and that there was practically no chance of Africans ever being able to govern themselves in a democratic manner. Though this view is, rightly, repugnant to today’s world, it was so obvious to those who lived barely a century ago that it was hardly challenged at the time. Even celebrated philanthropic reformers – William Wilberforce in 1807, say, or August Bebel in Germany almost a century later – would have unblinkingly accepted that African peoples were inferior and unlikely to be able to run their own affairs. They may have been concerned to diminish the shocking exploitation of Africans, and justly they are praised for their campaigns, but they were nonetheless confined in the mental prisons of their age.

I confess that the three cases above are little nuanced, having of necessity been boiled down to their rudiments, but nonetheless each hints at one of the most important lessons of history. What is it? I am claiming that people in the past were markedly more stupid than we are now and thus we are superior to them? Far from it. In fact, any pride in present day sophistication versus historical dim-wittedness is almost as much a capital sin in history as it is in Christianity. True, I have been trying to show that human beings have believed things in the past which we would now consider spectacularly mistaken. But what I hope I’ve also signalled is that such opinions were widely held – precisely as those ideas with which I started are believed now. Moreover, miasma theory, geocentrism, and assumptions about African inferiority were only overturned by a slow process of challenge and argument. And it is in this that one of the foremost lessons of history lies. For, unless we succumb to the arrogant idea that we have somehow become infallible in the early twenty-first century, it must surely be likely that some presently commonplace notions will prove unfounded. If that’s the case, history’s lesson must be that we should – individually and collectively – cultivate a frame of mind that encourages us to question generally accepted ‘truths’. This is not to advocate unbridled cynicism. Since, say, the reality of global warming is based on the best information that human beings currently possess it would be unwise not to calculate – for the time being – on the basis that it is true. Rather, it is to acknowledge that without a mindset of reasoned scepticism human beings have often been herded down blind passages, where they await directions from a John Snow or a Galileo Galilei. History reminds us to try to think like them. 

Taking it further:

If the above has intrigued you, you may also find the following courses from The Open University to be of interest:

Medicine and Society in Europe 1500-1930
This course traces the development of medical knowledge and its application from the early modern period through to the twentieth century. It is not just a straightforward history of medicine. Instead, it shows how western medicine interacted with ideas from contemporary science and religion and demonstrates its deep impact on European societies.

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.

The Rise of Scientific Europe 1500 - 1800
Why did modern science develop solely in Europe, and then only in some parts rather than others? This module attempts to answer these fascinating questions with a survey of scientific development from the Renaissance through to the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Along the way, it looks also at the roots of European science in Arabic and Chinese scientific cultures.

You might also be interested in the programme 'Blame and historic injustice' from the podcast series Ethics Bites


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