This paper explores history and the idea that individuals, nations, and civilizations should learn from their history, as well as, the fact that they do so selectively. Hart (2015) insists on the fact that some lessons from our history are simply unavoidable and are critical in the present day. Sherry (2011) and Hegghammer (2010) give insight into the delayed progression of the modern world, and more specifically America, to learn from its history of war and violence. Ferguson (2014) asserts his belief in America’s ability to accommodate a changing world as a means to prosperity. This paper examines various resources to address the importance of learning from history.
Keywords: learn from history
Lessons from the Past
History and its Influence Today
History can be defined as knowledge passed down by previous generations and civilizations over millennia. Recorded history is the only way future generations can learn about what came before them. Notably, history is not just confined to books and stone tablets. It can be personal, familial, national, or global. History is interesting in that there is nothing anyone can do to influence past events. It must mean, then, that individuals, nations, and future generations are meant to learn from history. However, some will argue that the past is just the past and has no bearing on future events. These people fail to understand the immensity of what history has and the potential to teach those who bother to learn from it. Since the earliest conceivable days of man, he has recorded history on cave walls, stone tablets, scrolls, and books. With each new generation, there is less and less of the new and more of the same old. The human race has learned from its history by improving on solid technical principles and technology as a whole, reproaching from war and violence as a means of conflict resolution and adding to its efforts towards economic stability.
Not everything that the human race has built today in terms of technological advancements and other daily norms would simply be possible without history. A complete lack of history would essentially mean that people would know anything except their experience. Hart quotes that only fools learn by experience and that it is wiser to learn from other people’s experiences (Hart, 2015, p.7). On its own, the statement is debatable in some respects and holds certain percentages of truth. Some of the most important elements of daily life can be credited to past generations and civilizations. Ferguson (2014) credits the dramatic growth in the West, to historic milestones such as the scientific revolution in the 17th century (p.292). Things people could not imaginably live without today such as fire was invented a long time ago. Through recording and passing down of the recorded information, subsequent generations have been able to improve on methods to make fire. From the spindle and fireboard to flint, to matchsticks today and gas lighters, the human race built on the concept of fire and made it easier and more accessible than it has ever been. Another good example is that of the wheel, which is an invention that can only be described as masterful. With boundless applications, the wheel is truly a pillar of modern civilization, despite the fact that it was conceived thousands of years ago. Indeed humanity has largely always built on the past, not because people are currently unable to invent new things, but because everything we need or think we need, has already been invented.
Over time, the human race proved and continues to prove its propensity to learn from history either willingly or unintentionally. However, in cases of conflict and destruction, the learning process seems to slow down significantly. War and conflict are some of the most consistent themes throughout human history. In recent years, no single country has been involved in more wars that the United States. In a widely debated move, former president George W. Bush waged war on Iraq in response to the events of what is now simply referred to as 9/11 bomb attack. Sherry (2011) refers to this move as ‘characteristic’ (p.10). These are some of the points in history that may be considered failures to learn from past mistakes. In failing to understand that conflict would only breed more conflict, the former president potentially helped create more terrorist and rebel factions in the Arab world. Indeed, over time, it seems the United States through war and conflict over resources, created an enemy in much of the Arab world (Hoagland, 2014, p.298). Accordingly, the decision to go to war with Iraq was widely criticized in the United States. One could even call it reckless and an impulsive move fuelled by vengeance. After the war, Iraq was left in tatters having suffered massive casualties and breakdowns in infrastructure. Nevertheless, rather than subside, rebels and terrorist militia groups grew in size and sophistication and America has not waged war nor shown the intent to do so since then. Perhaps this is evidence that America, and by extension the world, is learning from the dilapidating effects of war on all the parties involved.
America, as a country that other nations look up to, is constantly learning from its mistakes. America’s invasion of Iraq was aimed at subduing the terrorist factions therein. However, the move only ended up creating senseless chaos out of which a larger and stronger enemy emerged. Scholars across the world can agree that save for a nuclear apocalypse; there is little chance of war ruining America. Nonetheless, an economic crisis is much more likely to cause a full-scale collapse. Ferguson (2014) notes the collapse of several powers in history and infers that the cause of their downfall was the sudden failure of the social systems that supported them (p.292). America’s economy and more specifically the stock market is arguably one of the nation’s strongest cornerstones and one whose failure could potentially collapse the country. In recent history, The Great Depression is the best example of economic decline. Starting in the United States, it quickly spread across the world and lasted variably between nations. Most scholars attribute the great depression to the stock market crash in 1929 ((Robbins & Weidenbaum, 2009, p.10). Indeed, America did not fully recover until the early 1940’s where the Second World War brought about dramatic prosperity. More recently, the 2008 housing crash could have potentially done more damage than it did. Luckily, and in accordance with the Keynesian Model, the government increased expenditure and effectively mitigated the problem. Many economists subscribe to the theory that increased government spending has the potential to offset a recession and widespread unemployment (Farmer, 2012, p.18). America took lessons from its past in this regard. Were it not for the government’s intervention, the housing market crash could have potentially caused much more damage to the US economy. However, thanks to scholars like John Keynes, the economists of our age had the historical knowledge to lean on.
History serves as a teacher for individuals, nations and the world at large. If one looks close enough, they can get lessons, which have the potential to take their future in a better direction. Were it not for scholars like Keynes who took time to study past events and record them, or the droves of students of history throughout time, the modern world might be very different from what it is today. At the same time, history is impartial and offers only information. What one chooses to learn or not to learn from the information provided is solely up to them. Nevertheless, history and all of its events, even the seemingly minuscule, should be used as opportunities to learn. Even those who seem unbothered by history and learning from it will find they have probably already taken a lesson or two from the past. Overall, perhaps the recurrent lesson of history is that it always repeats itself, an affirmation that there is always something new to learn from past events.
Farmer, R. (2012). The stock market crash of 2008 caused the Great Recession: Theory and evidence. Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, 36(5), 1-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jedc.2012.02.003
Fergeson, N. (2014). America’s “Oh Sh*t” Moment, In G. Muller, Issues Across the Disciplines (12th ed., pp. 291-295). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hart, L. (2015). Why don’t we learn from history?. , .. Lulu Press, Inc.
Hegghammer, T. (2010). The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad. International Security, 35(3), 53-94. doi: 10.1162/isec_a_00023
Hoagland, E. (2014). 1776 and All That: America after September 11. In G. Muller, Issues Across the Disciplines (12th ed., pp. 297- 299). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Robbins, L., & Weidenbaum, M. (2009). The Great Depression. New Brunswick: Transaction.Sherry, M. (2011). A War “ unlike any other ” ?: America and the World since September 11. OAH Magazine of History, (3), 9-13.
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