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 History - a flawed teacher, or flawed pupils?

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Nobiles BarbariƦ

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PostSubject: History - a flawed teacher, or flawed pupils?   Fri 13 Apr 2012, 13:05

Much has been made, not least by historians understandably, of the general maxim that the principal value in learning history is at best to avoid, or at least to identify, future tragedy before it occurs. The premise however depends on another assumption whose worth we are generally not as diligently invited to scrutinise by the same advocates of the maxim, but is nonetheless crucial to the process - just how capable are we in fact of extrapolating from historical data a viable, let alone an accurate image of our future, even one just around the corner from where we are today?

Our track record in applying the principle should not give us cause for optimism either. This 1930s newreel, while humorous for its naive "vision" of fashion in the year 2000, actually demonstrates an ever-present and crucial flaw in our ability to forecast the future, namely that our knowledge itself is contemporary, however well informed it might be, and that there are some developments therefore which can never be factored in to the forecast since they lie so completely outside our contemporary conception, no matter how lively and prescient our imagination might strive to be. When the sum total of all available data proves itself unequal to the task of overcoming the inherent limitations of fantasy then the resulting forecast, however well formulated, will be just plain wrong.

We are on surer ground when asked to forecast technical developments, and some forecasters have proved themselves very prescient indeed in that area. This website showcases Da Vinci's renowned prowess in this field, for example:
Leonardo's Visions of the Future
But this itself begs a serious question. Why should humans find it relatively easier to predict the inanimate and technical products of their behaviour than they can those less tangible products of the same behaviour which in fact are of far greater impact on our lives - be it the capacity and willingness to resort to mass violence or the apparent inability to manage resources in an equitable manner and thereby ensure the greatest chance of survival to the greatest number of people? These are issues which underlie the greatest historical (and indeed contemporary) tragedies and therefore, one would think, those which we should be most adept at identifying, predicting and, as the maxim suggests, rectifying.

Are we as inept as we have apparently always been at accurate prediction based on what we know, even now when the sum total of that knowledge, both contemporary and historical, has never been bigger or as thoroughly analysed? And if not, why not? Could it be simply that we are doomed to repeat the tragedies of history not, as Santayana inferred, because we are ignorant of its lessons but because we just don't have the intellectual capability required to extrapolate a future from the data those lessons contain?
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PostSubject: Re: History - a flawed teacher, or flawed pupils?   Fri 13 Apr 2012, 17:21

I'm too distracted and lacking in time to get involved in any debates until this Easter malarky is over and the kids have all gone, but I'll quickly throw this into the ring and make a run for it...

I think we have the intellectual capacity to understand the lessons of the past and to project those lessons onto a future but we are also too argumentative to ever agree on what exactly those lessons are, little on which would be the best course of implementation. We are fairly lazy in not wanting to bother to do anything until it is almost too late and would rather just complain instead. Plus we hate the insecurity of change and won't facilitate a change until forced to do so, even if we have a fair idea from past mistakes it is easier to bury our heads in the sand and tell ourselves that it won't happen to us.

Man is his own worst enemy, so imo, the pupil is the flawed component in the equasion not the lesson itself.

Last edited by Islanddawn on Sat 14 Apr 2012, 05:55; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: History - a flawed teacher, or flawed pupils?   Fri 13 Apr 2012, 19:58

Quote :
Much has been made, not least by historians understandably, of the general maxim that the principal value in learning history is at best to avoid, or at least to identify, future tragedy before it occurs.

This seems to me to be hubris and thus dangerous. Not only does it hark back to notions of great, overarching, generalising principals that can be then applied objectively to make predictions but assumes that, whatever our intellectual accomplishments, we can divorce ourselves from our intrinsic biases and embedded viewpoints. And that doesn't even begin to address the incompleteness of the data set we are employing.

Scientific developments may seem, at first glance, easier to foresee; we just need, as Leonardo appears to have done, to envisage what might be useful in some future time and then let our imagination loose but that doesn't mean we have considered the technological obstacles nor how those innovations might be further developed. The most profound change we have seen recently has been the advance of mobile digital communication; as recently as the 70s when personal mobile phones became available who could have predicted what would come of the unwieldy bricks that were generally scorned.

In both predicting the affairs of men and his technology, not to mention the weather, the infinite number of variables that impinge on how these develop will always make prediction a risky and inaccurate business, chaos theory proves that, and the Law of Unintended Consequences is insurmountable. We can never see every butterfly flap its wings.

At best the study of History can offer a range of possible, but most certainly not exhaustive, possible outcomes so is it not better to study it as the story of how we have come to where we are today - and even that will not be anywhere near complete?
Leave predictions to the Sybils and soothsayers, they were more fun and probably as effective.

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PostSubject: Re: History - a flawed teacher, or flawed pupils?   Fri 13 Apr 2012, 23:40

All that sounds right, ferval, but some things continue very similarly to what they were without any apparent learning from history and without the need any great unknowable predictions. If there's been a time without wars I don't know it. They only acheive change with great loss of life and usually with some form of negotiation afterwards, that you might think could be tried first. The history that is known and used to defend the stances required here is twisted to suit individuals' interests generally.

I look at my own country which basically gets along with two main cultures happily enough, because people have learnt a bit from history and don't fancy upheavals. But it might only take a few awkward individuals to change that and then positions would become entrenched and people feel obliged to defend their land and relatives. It seems very hard to extricate people from these situations. And all the teachings of history doesn't seem to quite help.

And we never seem to learn that whatever technology is invented it will used to the hilt. I have got a little concerned with recent news that scientists/medical people have started to learn to work out the thoughts of people who are stroke victims or similarly unable to get their words out. This all seems quite innocuous, even helpful, but if people could ever read thoughts I expect it wouldn't be long before dictators/torturers etc would be making use of this new knowledge to further their own ends.

I don't think it's that ALL people misuse historical knowledge and growing technologies but it doesn't take many to make a huge and unpleasant difference, just as it doesn't take many people to make a huge and very useful difference to the world.
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