Why We Don’t Learn From History

1968 is widely regarded as one of the worst years in American history. It was the deadliest year in the Vietnam conflict with more than sixteen thousand American soldiers dying. In a nine-week span between April and June of 1968 both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, two of the most inspirational figures in the country, were assassinated.

Racial tensions led to riots and student protests against the war across the country turned bloody. Large swaths of the population no longer trusted the government while authorities and institutions were widely doubted.

These riots flared up in April following King’s death and again in August during the Democratic convention in Chicago. In his book Rocket Men, Robert Kurson discusses the crescendo of the riots in Chicago which ended up in front of the Hilton Hotel on the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue:

After thirty minutes, the police obliged them, smashing and clubbing and kicking and dragging anyone they could reach—demonstrators, onlookers, journalists—and it didn’t matter that the network television cameras were filming or that people were yelling “The whole world is watching!” or that those in the streets weren’t Vietcong or Soviets but the sons and daughters of fellow citizens; all that mattered for the next eighteen minutes of brutality and mayhem was that something had fractured in America and no one had any idea how to stop it, and after order was restored there still seemed to be cries coming from the streets, even though there was no one left to make them. Among the millions who watched the unedited footage on television, there hardly seemed a soul among them—rich or poor, young or old, left or right—who didn’t wonder if America could be put back together again.

Read this paragraph again and it could be a description of any number of protests over the last week and not something that occurred in 1968.

Reading about history can leave you feeling equal parts hopeful and depressed — hopeful because in many ways the world has gotten better but depressed because in many ways it hasn’t.  Mistakes that were made in the past continue to be made again and again.

So why don’t we learn more from history?

B.H. Liddell Hart was a British Soldier and military historian who sought to answer this question through the lens of military theory in his book Why Don’t We Learn From History?

It’s a short book but it’s packed with wisdom. Hart approaches this question from a number of different angles.

Part of the problem is overconfidence and a fear of the truth:

It is strange people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth.

All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error.

We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug:

Man seems to come into this world with an inalterable belief that he knows best and that he can make others think as he does by force. Those who read history tend to look for what proves them right and confirms their personal opinions. They defend loyalties. They read with a purpose to affirm or attack. They resist inconvenient truth since everyone wants to be on the side of the angels. Just as we start wars to end all wars.

If a man reads or hears a criticism of anything in which he has an interest, watch whether his first question is as to its fairness and truth. If he reacts to any such criticism with strong emotion; if he bases his complaint on the ground that it is not “in good taste” or that it will have a bad effect, in short, if he shows concern with any question except “Is it true?” he thereby reveals that his own attitude is unscientific.

The inability to change one’s mind is also a progress-stopper:

Likewise if in his turn he judges an idea not on its merits but with reference to the author of it; if he criticizes it as “heresy”; if he argues that authority must be right because it is authority; if he takes a particular criticism as a general depreciation; if he confuses opinion with facts; if he claims that any expression of opinion is “unquestionable”; if he declares that something will “never” come about or is “certain” that any view is right. The path of truth is paved with critical doubt and lighted by the spirit of objective inquiry. To view any question subjectively is self-blinding.

Hart reminds us there is light at the end of the tunnel but I don’t know how useful this is in moments like these for most people:

A long historical view not only helps us to keep calm in a “time of trouble” but reminds us that there is an end to the longest tunnel. Even if we can see no good hope ahead, an historical interest as to what will happen is a help in carrying on. For a thinking man, it can be the strongest check on a suicidal feeling.

2020 is going to be written about and studied for years. I’m confident in saying this year is one for the history books.

Unfortunately, during a time when many feel like America can’t be put back together again we don’t have the luxury of waiting for those history books to be written.

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