Can people actually learn from history?
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”
“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
This idea has been repeated so many times It’s become cliché. Yet everytime we study history we come across someone, in particular someone in a position of power, that failed to learn from history and consequently made a huge mistake. Whether it be Hitler invading Russia in Winter, The US invading Afghanistan, or the American public with post 1996 Adam Sandler movies, we as humans, or at least those who are in positions of power, never seem to learn from history. But why is this?
Perhaps we are incapable. Some people are a bit more cynical about the human ability to learn from history.
“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”
George Bernard Shaw
“Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone.”
G. W. F. Hegel
These sayings about history all come from what seems to be a universally acknowledged truth that history repeats itself. Which leads me to think that this saying would not have come about if people were capable of learning from history. However I would be careful of following this chain of logic too far because it takes you down a rabbit hole of existential dread. I think people are capable of learning from history, but on an individual level.
When we think of history we tend to think of it on a large scale. We think of the history of groups, be they an ethnic group, a religion, a nation, or a civilization. When we do look at the history of individuals they tend to be larger than life individuals. The so called “Great Men” of history. Julius Caesar, Henry the 8th, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Steve Jobs. And this is done with the best of intentions. I’m not going to write a dissertation about the influence my second grade teacher has had on the world because in the grand scheme of things it appears that her influence is very little.
I would say that we can learn from history, but it’s a much smaller scale of history. The history of individuals, be they ourselves or someone else. Basically the concepts of learning from one’s mistakes is infact learning from history. So why does it seem that world leaders don’t learn from history? Though nothing can be said for certain about the motives of leaders I conjecture it has to do with the dueling forces of certain persons or groups wanting things to stay the same and those believing that the future will be completely different.
Political forces in our world either want things to stay as they are or to change. Now whether either of these forces is good doesn’t matter to the grand scheme of this idea. Many of those making decisions or advising those who do want change will point out how different their idea is from what was done in the past. Or those who don’t want change will use the examples of past mistakes to rule out any potential new ideas.There is also the very good point that people a 100 years ago would not have predicted what the world looks like today. And yet when we look back at that 100 years we see very common themes that have been seen before, just with different names attached.
In my own studies I have adopted what I like to call the Mark Twain philosophy of history.
“History does not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”
History is the collective result of individual actions. The study of human interactions is Sociology. Both are considered soft sciences, as in you cannot measure them. This is an important distinction between history/sociology and something like engineering. In the hard sciences you can replicate a scenario and it will give the same results every time. But humans are different. We change our behavior based on our knowledge, or at least our perception of it. Because of this history can never repeat itself, or at least in the same way. A chemical reaction will repeat itself over and over because chemicals don’t learn. The number of variables in a human situation are incalculable and irreplicable.
This may seem like I’m pointing something out that is stupidly obvious but understanding this is important to understanding humans and the ability to learn from history. Because humans have memory we change our behavior. Because we change our behavior nothing can be exactly replicated. And because no situation can be exactly replicated that means we can’t perfectly learn from history. That is the heart of the Mark Twain quote, history can’t repeat itself, but it does look familiar. This means present day situations look similar to events of the past, but still have those incalculable and irreplicable differences that make it impossible to use history as a perfect guide.
So perhaps we should not be so harsh on those who fail to learn from history if for no other reason that it is impossible to perfectly do so. During each present moment we act according to what we think should have been done before. Because of this we as humans will always be a step behind the best possible action. So maybe we accept another universal truth, “to err is human”