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This article was written on 26 Sep 2012, and is filled under Essays.

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The importance of history

I was raised in a house formed by history. My mother, tired of being impacted by a historical event (a civil war) and my father, equally tired of the British establishment decided to flee their respective locales and flee to the deserts of Arabia, where they met.

Now you may wonder why, in this blog of half-witted analysis and below-par monologue one wishes to engage his audience with this title. I have increasingly been dumb-founded by the number of scientists and common folk who persistently talk down history. With all its biases, distortions, reflections, refractions and meditations, will we ever actually know what the hell was going on? Does history have any imporance?

Does History Happen? Steins Gate

Important or not? Perhaps Steins; Gate can’t tell us the answer

 

Before we go any further, I am not referring to hindsight bias or the so-called narrative fallacy. I am referring to this idea that history is devoid of lessons. Or, even if it is, it serves the wrong ones. This flavour of the argument will be covered in ‘The abuse of history.’

Although one tends to stay away from biblical references, this quote from Ecclesiastes perhaps sums it up:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 King James Version

Humans, in all their diversity experience many things. Some experience things far worse than us, others experience things much better than us. To argue otherwise is nonsensical. Fundamentally though, repetition is at hand. Increasingly, we watch the same programmes, aspire to own ‘similar’ objects and live in a certain manner. Further still all life is full of the good, the bad and the ugly. No life is singularly bad, or singularly full of happiness.

The question remains whether we see this with our own eyes. However, this is not a self-help essay. What makes the great ‘great’ as it were is not how they cope with these things, but how they take these similar experiences and try to go somewhere new.

No History lessons

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but this moment is a gift, that is why it is called the present.

The past is the past, so we should forget about it. In financial markets, people fit sophisticated models to past events as they believe the past to be the most predictive indicator. This is where the ten-sigma problem or Black Swan begins to rear its majestic neck. With certain individuals obsessing over history, they become deluded by its explanatory power. In this case, yes more robust a-historical methods are required. How else do we explain Long Term Capital Management?
Black Swann - Explored #282

The problem is further still present in world institutions. It is argued that because Economic Development is relatively similar all countries should do x then y and then z. Whilst this is fundamentally true the way one carries out x before y may require a certain artistic license to get the initial concept off the ground. Japan’s development success lied not in its ability to copy others but its ability to adapt western ideas for what the Japanese needed. So history again it can be argued should be disguarded.

The abuse of history

When history is learned, some argue, it is learned the wrong way or perverted. This is rampant throughout the world. The Americans glorify tax evaders and racists, while the Europeans talk of a democratic process that their predecessors actively circumvented. The Middle East is full of hokum and superstition, with a variety of people of various faiths convinced that everyone in the world is out to get them. More disturbingly, these people are in a policymaking position. And lastly, Asia, where due to political considerations, nobody has really sat down to discuss what really happened as they all thrive off their own perversion of the facts. As I have said, to pretend that we aren’t all doing this is a lie.

This has been seen in a number of cases. The bulk of the Bosnian and Kosovo tragedy was based around peoples knowledge of past injustices. More contemporaneously

So with all this abuse, all these lies, all this inconveniences of truth, outliers etc, how can one constructively learn from history?

The value of history

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Mark Twain

There lies in history fundamental truths. Just as moral bankruptcy will at some point poison the cup of its practitioners (emphasis on eventually, not necessarily within the 2 hour allocation of a movie), certain actions done without some sort of coerced consensus will not work for long. The more historiographical of you will now promptly accuse me of being a Marxian Historian, a mildly hypocritical  despite my clear stance. However, political and economic actions do sway the fate of humanity.

A few examples are needed. The problem with Greek Unions at present is not too dissimilar to the German Unions in the immediate aftermath of the East German reunification project. Schröder realised fundamentally that if the unions did not learn to compromise then all of Germany would suffer. Fortunately, the unions saw this as well and a deal was reached.

Food security and planning is a more direct example. Zimbabwe used to be known as the bread bowl of Africa. According to a World Bank report in the early 1950s, Nigeria and Kenya were scheduled to be Developed Countries at the latest by the 1970s. Corruption, misappropriation of land and contaminated ideologies took away from the African sub-continent a genuine chance to catch-up. Any coherent empiricist would tell you that tampering with the agricultural system, i.e. making land sizes smaller, not bigger was a recipe for disaster. This is scientific, not political.

Similar ideas still pervade today. In education, teaching unions that advocate this ‘everyone wins’ mantra are themselves participating in destroying OECD competitiveness. The UK, once the epitome of Education thanks in large part to the 1945 Education act has now reduced social mobility and re-enforced the already compulsive debate about a class system. The very people who benefited from the system have destroyed the ladder that helped them up in the first place.


History has shown that there are triggers. Food supplies, property rights, legal regimes, political stability and education have all been catalysts for advancing human endeavour.

The future is indeed unknown and the past is arguably a bad guide, but if we can see the lessons that history has taught us we can learn to be better. You can’t predict whether you will suffer from cancer but you can at least take out insurance in case you do. To say that ‘this is new’ is not frankly going to cut it. I leave you with the words of George Santayana:

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

For those who want a bit more meat, here is Francis Fukuyama, way back in the day when he introduced the idea of ‘The end of history’

As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome. Please leave them in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. David
    September 27, 2012

    Ignorance of history? or inability to learn vicariously?

    When I think of the behaviour around risk taking and spending of my grandparents, who were at least alive during the great depression, it makes me wonder if living history is the only true way humans can learn from it and adjust accordingly.

    I’m not sure if I would really fear touching an electric fence without ever having touched one.

    • Echizen
      September 27, 2012

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly see your point. However, at the same time we can’t go through everything again just because we ourselves haven’t experienced it, otherwise scientific development would be in a perpetual loop. That being said, perhaps some things must be experienced before we can extract their lessons.

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