Learning from history

A piece in Foreign Policy Magazine this month made me think. Quote first:

Last but not least, discredited ideas sometimes come back to life because societies simply forget important lessons about the past. Political psychologists generally agree that personal experiences have a disproportionate impact on our political beliefs, and lessons learned by older generations rarely resonate as strongly with their successors. And besides, as the years go by it becomes easier to argue that circumstances have changed and that “things are different now,” encouraging the wrong-headed view that previous wisdoms about how to deal with particular problems might no longer hold. Of course, sometimes those arguments will be correct — there are few timeless verities in political life — and even seemingly unassailable truths might someday be seriously challenged if not discredited. All this just further complicates the problem of learning and retaining the right lessons from the past.
(Me again) It’s all fine and dandy to talk about learning from the past, and we all know the Santayana quote about being condemned to repeat it if we don’t. Still, I wonder if we truly try.

I read a lot of books. What I’ve noticed is that many people…don’t read at all. On the internet is an exception, and I think a lot of bloggers forget that since many of them read. Most of the bosses I’ve had didn’t, even if they were CEOs. They say that you can’t learn anything out of a book. I disagree with this, and my example is simply that I wouldn’t trust a doctor who had never cracked open an introductory anatomy text. There’s no substitute for experience, yes…but background knowledge can indeed be gained from books.

Over the last few months, as I’ve been working in the field of international security, I’ve had occasion to think about this as applied to the United States armed forces. I’ve read David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerillas. And lately, I’ve read these two books (both good descriptions of small unit tactics in counterinsurgency):


Seven Firefights in Vietnam, by John Cash, John Albright, and Allan W. Sandstrum

The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa by Michael Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt with E.D. Swinton’s Defense of Duffer’s Drift

The question is, how many of our United States soldiers have? How many have been exposed to these ideas? Yes, we have a whole Field Manual dedicated to counterinsurgency, but have you ever actually tried to read an army field manual? We have a well trained, professional force. So we say. But I think the army would do well to either encourage it’s troopers to read these books, or else present the main ideas in classes – before they ship out to fight a counterinsurgency.

The average guy doesn’t read history. He reads sports. Right now, the big news in Pittsburgh is the fact that we’re in the Super Bowl (Go Steelers!). Most guys I know (Yes, I know that the plural of anecdote is NOT statistics) can quote Polamalu’s stats from memory, but would be hard pressed to tell you who Hosni Mubarak is. Or what happened at My Lai. Or who Thucydides is.

So how are we supposed to learn from history? Maybe it can’t tell us what the right thing to do is or help to predict the future (See Nassim Taleb’s books) but I think it can help us to keep from repeating the same mistakes. What are your thoughts? Do we need a stronger curriculum for schools? If not, or if that’s not possible, what do you suggest?



2 thoughts on “Learning from history

  1. Book knowledge is a great foundation to lay before getting experience and it fills in the gaps of our experience as well. Most people, (professionals included) only read when they have to. People depend on others to read for them (like you). How much of journalism amounts to a well read researcher telling what someone else said? We need politicians who are intellectually curious enough to read and research themselves. As should we ourselves.

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