History Lessons?

Adolf Hitler was generally contemptuous of all who tried vainly to instill either discipline or learning into him. However, there was one (and only one) teacher who received a tribute in Mein Kampf,

It was perhaps decisive for my whole later life that good fortune gave me a history teacher who understood, as few others did, this principle … – of retaining the essential and forgetting the nonessential …. In my teacher, Dr. Leopold Poetsch of the high school in Linz, this requirement was fulfilled in a truly ideal manner. . . he was able not only to hold our attention by his dazzling eloquence but to carry us away with him. . . . He used our budding national fanaticism as a means of educating us, frequently appealing to our sense of national honor.

This teacher made history my favorite subject.

And indeed, though he had no such intention, it was then that I became a young revolutionary.

Dr. Poetsch gave his fawning pupil a grading of “fair”.

The key thing about this reminiscence for me is the part about ‘retaining the essential and forgetting the nonessential’. The trick of course is in knowing what is essential. Some notable statements I have come across from people who have apparently grasped the ‘essential lessons’ of history:

The Roman Empire grew because of low taxes.

The Roman Empire fell because of immigration.

I don’t know why, but history lessoners seem to have an inordinate fondness for grand empires and their rise and fall. The history of smaller kingdoms, everyday life and people making do and adapting to their environment rarely arouse their interest.

It is not hard to imagine that when people look at history, fiction, or indeed the world, what they are really looking at is themselves. Daniel Kahnemann wrote,

“we are ruined by our own biases. When making decisions, we see what we want, ignore probabilities, and minimize risks that uproot our hopes.”

As a case study consider the idea of historical determinism. This implies that for historical reasons, certain outcomes are inevitable or that the future is critically shaped by the past. A splendid example of this is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel where he traces back the reason why native Americans and Polynessian islanders lagged behind in technical development through no fault of their own due to their geographical circumstances.

Such deterministic views appeal to two groups, those at the bottom and those at the top. People have conjectured that this is because it absolves them of personal responsibility or guilt for the inequality they face. But that is speculation and to treat it like fact is to fall into the very pit of narrative that we are talking about.

Narrative is not real, it is something we put in place to make sense of the world. The human mind is not evolved to make sense of the world, it is evolved to survive. To see the distinction, I would like to present this admittedly extreme example. Suppose there is a herd of goats. While most goats are perfectly placid, happy in getting by day to day and getting their daily grass, there is one goat who instinctively realizes that living with the goatherd is dangerous and sooner or later his turn for the slaughter will come.

This goat would be stressed, constantly making trouble and trying to escape, the one the goatherd would deem a trouble-maker. Guess which goat would get picked for the next slaughter. If the only criteria the goat had was to survive and produce offspring, it would be far better off not perceiving any form of danger trusting in the goatherd implicitly.

Evolution is a mindless force like gravity. It does not move to improve the species, only to make it fit into its environment. This is the real meaning of the term ‘survival of the fittest’. That’s not a lesson of history, its an observation about biology.



[1] William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

[2] Mary Beard, A Don’s Life

[3] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Macmillan, 2011), as quoted in Dennis Berman, “So What’s Your Algorithm?” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2012, accessed June 18, 2016

[4] Micheal Lissack, Don’t be Addicted: The Oft-Overlooked Dangers of Simplification, She-Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics and Innovation, Vol2, Issue 1, Spring 2016, pages 29-45


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