History News Network | What Can We Learn from History?

At the History News Network, Robert Zaretsky argues that the popular perception of history as “a how-to manual for avoiding past errors” is mistaken. In practice applying the “lessons of history” has rarely been successful. False analogies, faulty interpretations, and inadequate understanding of the past and present all contribute to the problem. Zaretsky points out, correctly I believe, that we turn “to the past for platitudes that parade as lessons.”

Despite his pessimism concerning history lessons Zaretsky still believes that history can be a useful guide in the present. Instead of turning to history as “a how-to manual,” Zaretsky believes that it is the stories offered by history that are valuable. Stories of the past, he insists, “offer, in effect, exercises in political and moral judgment.” As an example he turns to the lessons learned from Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August by John F. Kennedy. According to Zaretsky, it taught Kennedy “that the greatest danger a political leader could run in time of crisis was ‘a mistake in judgment.’”

History News Network | What Can We Learn from History?.

The Guns of August

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