This is why history matters, especially now

Students take a university entrance examination at a lecture hall in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain, June 16, 2015. Students in Spain must pass the exam after completing secondary school in order to gain access to university.  REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Image: REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Declining history test scores for US students have triggered concern.
  • A loss of grounding in history and the humanities can be dangerous anywhere, experts say.
  • That may be especially true in a period of geopolitical friction and flourishing artificial intelligence.

One day, a professor describing a particularly gory period of the French Revolution heavy on show trials and guillotines paused to offer an aside. You realize, he said to me and a lecture hall full of other undergraduates at a public university in California, we don’t actually learn from this stuff.

We as a society don’t really process lessons from the past, and do better.

Gasps. Muttering. Some mild boos, even. And a red-faced professor who seemed to maybe regret having opened his mouth.

It’s natural to want to believe history provides us with a readily-accessible instruction manual for the present. And that learning it really will help us collectively avoid repeating grave mistakes. Because without that belief, the future feels a lot more precarious.

That’s one reason experts reacted with alarm to recently-reported history test scores in the US that have slipped to the point of erasing decades of progress.

“It matters for the health of democracy for people to have a sense of how things have been, and how they could be different,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. “To not be aware of that is a danger.”

At a more global level, history’s cautionary tales feel essential now amid the fracturing of an international order pieced together following catastrophic conflict, and a grisly reboot of European ground war in Ukraine. Concerns had already been proliferating about threats to stability due to the ways in which everything from apartheid in South Africa to Stalin's legacy in Russia are being taught – or not taught.

Falling test scores in the US have ignited discussion about the value of learning history.
Falling test scores in the US have ignited discussion about the value of learning history. Image: World Economic Forum

The sense of frustration may be particularly strong for someone who suffered through a war in their own European country as recently as a couple of decades ago, and is watching events in Ukraine unfold.

“I could imagine how people in the former Yugoslavia must be flummoxed by discussion about the ‘first war in Europe since World War II’,” said Wasserstrom (yes, that happens).

Still, Wasserstrom said that looking for direct correlations between past and present isn’t necessarily helpful.

Instead he suggests making use of “imperfect analogies.” Examining multiple historic reference points side-by-side helps frame the “open-endedness of the past,” he said, and can be used “to provide you with a spectrum of possible futures.”

The illusion of following the same story

Wasserstrom said it’s also necessary to acknowledge that there is no single historical record. “There’s an illusion that we’re all following the same story,” he said. “People have radically different ideas of what the important parts of the past are.”

Take World War II and its resolution, for example – events that would mold global development for decades to come. Accounts that emphasize atrocities in one theater of the conflict but skip over others can have a warping effect, or weaponize the past.

Figures who were protagonists in that war and managed its aftermath can also be remembered in sharply different ways, depending on location and context.

Stalin, for example, may be the stalwart Soviet leader who rallied his nation to defeat Nazi Germany, or the dictator who terrorized his people into submission while racking up an astonishing body count in the process.

His eventual successor in the role of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, may be the respected statesman who unwound a repressive system and opened his country up to the rest of the world, or the traitor who sold it out.

A survey conducted in former Eastern Bloc countries nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union reflected that divide. Stalin’s historical role was perceived as “positive” by as many as 58% of adults in Russia, and as few as 6% in Poland; Gorbachev’s role was perceived as positive by as many as 56% of adults in Estonia, and just 22% in Russia.

Occasionally, we do manage to reach enough of a consensus on the past to use it constructively.

Wasserstrom pointed to the establishment of the United Nations as an example. Its predecessor, the League of Nations, had been an attempt to band together in response to one world war – which unraveled in a way that led to yet another.

“For all of its flaws,” Wasserstrom said, “it’s been more effective than the League of Nations, and I think there was a process of learning from the past that was involved.”

The UN has been tested lately by the aggression of Russia, one of five permanent members of its Security Council. The experience provides yet another lesson on the need to remain cognizant of past mistakes, while forging as much unity as possible in the face of adversity.

And it’s not just the outbreak of military conflict that calls for a tightened grasp of history and the humanities. At a time of baffling technological change, and a coming wave of artificial intelligence-based information, that grasp could help us assess how to best put these tools to use, and how to interpret the information they feed us – not least about the past.

Looking back, I don’t think the professor in that California lecture hall was really telling us we can’t learn from history. He was just saying that we frequently don’t.

So pay attention, and take notes.

More reading on history’s practical value

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Using history to inform the present, and using the present to inform how we teach history – this piece delves into ways current cultural and social trends (“critical race theory,” for one) are influencing the study of the past. (LSE)
  • “It feels new every year.” From cancelling Kanye to campus unrest, this intellectual historian draws on the long history of anti-semitism to ask how it can help us understand the issue in the present. (Cornell University)
  • In Sudan, a complicated history stretching back to the Turco-Egyptian conquest of the region in the early 19th century helps explain a recent descent into violent conflict, according to this piece. (The Conversation)
  • Another example of the weight of history – the recent thaw in relations between South Korea and Japan only came about after a policy turnaround on reparations related to World War II, according to this analysis. (European Council on Foreign Relations)
  • “For the King of Canada to be crowned in London is a reminder that the modern monarch’s title still reflects the old empire.” The piece explores some of the history behind Charles III’s recent coronation ceremony in the UK. (The Conversation)
  • “Who counts?” It’s not just political history that can be problematic; this piece ponders the ways in which the history of science excludes women and other underrepresented groups. (Chemistry World)
  • History has colored the ambivalent responses of South Asian countries to the invasion of Ukraine, according to this analysis. (Observer Research Foundation)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Education, Arts and Culture and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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