7 No. 3
December 2004/January 2005
Its Own Sake
When knowledge isn't
you package and promote your knowledge is equally as important as
how to produce world-class knowledge. Jagdish
Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing
don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply
what he or she discovers.
Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology
Negative Benefits of Historical Study
On not applying the lessons of the past
Allitt, Professor of History
graduate and postdoctoral education
Marsteller, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director of
the Emory College Center for Science Education
The power and popularization of an ancient art at Emory
is important but not useful, and as I teach it I don’t try
to make the case that it will help students later in life. Plenty
of politicians have made disastrous mistakes because they applied
“the lessons of history,” only to discover that conditions
had changed and that what made sense once often made nonsense second
time around. When we say that the generals are always fighting the
last war, we don’t mean it as a compliment.
In the fall of 2004 I taught a freshman seminar on the Americans
and the Vietnam War. In it we studied the Kennedy and Johnson administrations
as they decided to commit American wealth and power in Southeast
Asia. Most of these presidents’ senior advisors had come of
age in the 1930s and 1940s and had witnessed France’s and
Britain’s failure to stop Hitler as he began to re-arm. If
they had attacked him early when he was weak they would have won
easily and could have prevented the Second World War. The Americans
concluded, fight the enemy early when he’s weak and far away,
or you’ll have to fight him later when he’s stronger
and closer. The historical analogy seemed persuasive, but it failed
in practice. Fifty thousand Americans and several million Vietnamese
people died as a result.
Does that mean the politicians ought not to have studied history?
No; then their mistakes would probably have been even worse. History
provides us with a vast fund of experience; it shows us the range
of ways people and nations
and demonstrates that utopianism is always delusional. But history
can’t be “applied” in the way an education in
electrical wiring or plumbing can be applied.
more you study history, the more you become aware that events only
happen once. This lesson
is hard to learn because there is often the appearance of repetition.
For example, Charles xii of Sweden, Napoleon, and Hitler all invaded
Russia, and all three were ruined by it. The lesson would seem clear—every
invader of Russia comes to grief, so invading Russia is never a
good idea. It’s possible, in the same way, to find similarities
among the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese
Revolution and to infer that revolutions themselves have a familiar
pattern. But anyone who tries to use this pattern predictively finds
that new circumstances lead to new events and that the predictions
Studying history can help you become skeptical, to learn that good
intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes, and it can
show that sometimes a policy’s unforeseen side effects are
more significant than its ostensible benefits. It can show you that
far more harm has been done in the world by people whose intentions
were benign and honorable than by those who intended harm. It can
show you that projects undertaken for selfish reasons can sometimes
have public benefits (the whole history of capitalism, for example).
Above all it demonstrates that the world is, and has always been,
complicated, and that simple plans for transforming it won’t
work. Surely it’s better to know these things than not to
know them. Perhaps I’m really arguing that studying history
is useful but only in a negative sense. It warns you away from various
types of behavior, and it offers clues, at least, about ways of
living that probably won’t work.
It ought, also, to teach you modesty about your cherished beliefs.
One of the painful pleasures of studying history is discovering
people from other times and places who were just as sincere about
their beliefs as we are about ours, even though those beliefs were,
by our standards, horrible. I’m constantly urging students,
“Don’t condemn these people: try to understand them
instead. Condemnation is easy; understanding is difficult. Try to
get inside their minds, at least provisionally, and think the kind
of thoughts they thought. Otherwise you’ll never be able to
Before long it dawns on the quicker students that, in the future,
new generations will condemn our beliefs in the same way that we
condemn the beliefs of our forebears. As soon as you’ve had
that thought you tend to be a bit more guarded in your self-righteousness.
Or else you react by becoming more censorious than ever, judging
every-one, from every age, according to your own values and standards.
Nothing is more common, in my experience, than student papers that
summarize a series of events in the past and then stand in haughty
judgment over them, concluding with moral indignation rather than
For a while I tried telling students, “Don’t tell me
your opinion; opinions are commonplace and dull. Give me an explanation
instead. What makes you special as an historian is your ability
to understand what happened, and why. Leave the reader to draw his
or her own moral conclusions.” They didn’t like this
many, eager for good grades, wrote with the appearance of impartiality
and guarded weighing of evidence, they rarely gave up voicing their
indignation, and enjoyed above all the bit where they had the chance
for some righteous spluttering.