On Not-Learning-From-History, 1: we’ve got a problem

In my teaching, I usually tell students to be suspicious about “lessons from history.” The past is complicated, I say. Situations differ, and our knowledge about them is always imperfect; usually it’s downright lousy. The main lessons of history concern human ignorance, I usually say; we just don’t know enough about the past to draw lessons from it about the future.

But lately I’ve changed my tune. It’s not that there are no lessons from history, I’ve come to think– actually there are plenty. It’s just that most of them are so obvious and straightforward that we historians take them for granted, as base-line common sense that doesn’t need talking about. That silence wouldn’t be a problem, except that many people– smart, educated, high-minded people– either haven’t learned those low-level lessons from history, or have somehow unlearned them.

So I’ve started to wonder how that Not-Learning-From-History happens. I’ve come to think it’s a complicated and interesting process, which deserves some attention. I’ll have more to say about the process in the next few weeks. Here, I just want to suggest some dimensions of the problem itself– mainly, that it’s really big.

The kind of history lesson I have in mind comes from the realm of political leadership. Of course I’m thinking a lot about leadership these days, since we’ve apparently entered a new “he’s the next Hitler” phase, this one featuring Vladimir Putin of Russia. (Unless you’ve been away for the last decade or two, you’ll know we’ve had plenty of other next-Hitlers recently.) The idea is that Putin (following the original Hitler pattern) exhibits a mix of demonic ambition, irrational violence, and masterful control over his helpless subjects. So he’s dangerous and has to be stopped now, before he gets going on his project of world domination; ignoring him will only lead to more trouble.

Here’s where the historian’s lessons ought to come in, because in the real history books even Hitler himself didn’t fit the “next Hitler” pattern. Nobody does, partly because (history teaches) political leaders are never all-powerful puppetmasters; even dictators need cooperation from millions of subjects to get anything done, and those millions of subjects are getting something that’s making them cooperate. History also teaches that all societies have real collective interests, which their leaders usually try to advance one way or another.

Taking those lessons seriously doesn’t mean denying the role of individuals in history, and it doesn’t say anything about international conflicts. Collisions of societal interests can be violent, and sometimes there’s no way to compromise among them; individuals– both political leaders and others– have often shaped their countries’ development.

But history does teach that it’s stupid to treat any leaders as demons, Marvel-style super-villains, or lunatics.  It’s just as stupid to think of them as societal cancers, whose surgical removal will allow the social body to return to healthy growth. That’s just not how societies work.

And yet to many influential people in Washington, London, and elsewhere, that stupidity apparently counts as common sense. It’s not just talk, either. A significant amount of recent military action has centered on “taking out” various leadership groups, “decapitating” regimes, all that sort of thing– meaning that the super-villain idea of government is actually shaping what really happens in the real world. If we just get rid of whichever next-Hitler we’re currently focusing on, the idea goes, things will start to go right in Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran/Syria/the Ukraine/ and the dozens of other places our foreign policy touches.

So that’s a first take on the Not-Learning-From-History problem. We apparently have smart, highly-educated, powerfuI people who haven’t absorbed the simplest lessons that history can teach. I mean, we’re not talking about a failure to understand long footnotes on obscure topics. Even the basics aren’t getting through.

It’s not clear to me what’s going on, but it’s something we ought to try to understand.