Notes on the Value of Historical Knowledge as Helping to Avoid Future Mistakes

A friend shared the following quote from the late author Michael Crichton in his book Prey. It’s been rattling around in my head since I saw it.

“We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as a result of bad thinking by less able minds—and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.”

I have mixed feelings about this sentiment.

Of course, without having read the book I don’t know the context in which Crichton uses the term “we.” Putting that aside, I think the quote speaks to the value of studying history while at the same time going too far in trying to make history a tool to solve future social problems.

On the one hand, Crichton argues that societies fail to acknowledge mistakes from the past, but then follows by saying that each generation does acknowledge past mistakes but is too quick to dismiss those mistakes as “bad thinking by less able minds.” It would be very easy to find examples of both in action. All too often, the way history is taught to young people in a formal education setting is a form of what the late James Loewen described as “chronological ethnocentrism.” Put simply, the past is left in the past. Chronological ethnocentrism “lets [history textbook authors] sequester bad things, from racism and robber barons, in the distant past,” Loewen argues. “Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all ‘know’ everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now.”

Another point not always acknowledged is that it isn’t so much that people from the past were less intelligent than people in the present. It’s that they did not have access to the same tools, technology, and information that people in the present have.

On the other hand, Crichton seems to imply that each generation ends up making “fresh errors” because of historical ignorance, and that by extension a strong sense of historical literacy will help those generations avoid making the same or new mistakes in the future. In other words, it’s a return to the old quote from George Santayana about those being ignorant of the past being doomed to repeat it.

To me, this part of Crichton’s point oversells the value of history.

The reality is that new mistakes will be made regardless of an individual or society’s collective historical knowledge. There will always be new mistakes because unprecedented circumstances, contingencies, and surprises will emerge that history cannot provide an answer for. A specific outcome from a particular historical event does not mean that the same outcome will emerge in a similar future event. To cite but one example, the 1918 influenza pandemic did not prevent another pandemic from emerging a little over 100 years, nor did it provide a solution for reducing sickness and death in this current plague. History alone cannot save us.

Growing up, I got into history for two different reasons. One is that history is simply interesting to me on its own terms. Regardless of what artifacts, documents, or books might have to say about the present, they hold a power in their own right for what they can say about the time period in which they were created. Secondly, I was interested in understanding how present day society arrived at its current social, political, and economic situation. But I don’t know if I ever got into history because I believed it provided a blueprint for the future. I don’t think it can.

There’s a lot of value in studying past case studies to see what worked and what didn’t; to be inspired by good acts while being aware of bad ones; to do our best to avoid the mistakes of the past. But when it comes to predicting the future . . . I’ll leave that to the meteorologists, social scientists, and data analysists.

Cheers