For Its Own Sake

The Negative Benefits of Historical Study

On not applying the lessons of the past

Patrick Allitt, Professor of History

Vol. 7 No. 3
December 2004/January 2005

For Its Own Sake
When knowledge isn't for sale

How 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

I don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers.
Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology

The Negative Benefits of Historical Study
On not applying the lessons of the past
Patrick Allitt, Professor of History

Teaching the Teachers
Reinventing graduate and postdoctoral education
Pat Marsteller, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director of
the Emory College Center for Science Education

Further reading

Poetry Happens
The power and popularization of an ancient art at Emory


Return to Contents

History 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
act 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.

The 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 don’t work.

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 understand them.”

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 with analysis.

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 approach.
Although 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.