Monday, July 9, 2012

History teaches no lessons

Genealogists tap into history all the time, whether we know it or not. (Not mentioning historical context at all implies that we think it was irrelevant.) The problem is that few of us have professional-level historical knowledge that would enable us to pick the best to read and remember. Stanford historian Jack Rakove offers us one rough cut in an aside while reviewing Michael Lind's Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States in The New Republic.

My paraphrase: Be skeptical of any writer, popular or erudite, who claims that "history" or a particular historical episode offers a clear-cut lesson for a present dilemma. He or she is probably oversimplifying matters at best. 

Rakove himself:

Historians hate [the idea of "lessons from history"] for many reasons, not least because they defy the underlying fundamental premise of historical thinking: that we study the past not merely to understand how the present emerged from it, which is the simpler part of our work, but more importantly, because it was so different from what we have become.
In the special case of the founders of our Republic, nothing could be zanier than naïvely assuming that we can pluck Hamilton or Jefferson or Madison or Franklin from their era, plop them down in ours, and apply their wisdom to our problems. The absurdity lies in this: the founders were deeply empirical in their thinking, deeply responsive to their experiences and observations, and deeply aware of the contingencies under which they acted.

Jack Rakove, "Hamilton? Jefferson?," 3 July 2012, The New Republic; digital image ( : accessed 9 July 2012).

Harold Henderson, "History teaches no lessons," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 9 July 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

No comments: