August 17, 2010

excerpt: The Lessons of History

From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 4:
History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it teaches only one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected. History is like experience and old age: wisdom is what one learns from it. ...

By showing that the best-laid plans of people usually go awry, the study of history tends to dampen youthful enthusiasm and to restrain the can-do, the conquer-the-future spirit that many people have. Historical knowledge takes people off a roller coaster of illusions and disillusions; it levels off emotions and gives people a perspective on what is possible and, more often, what is not possible...

To much of this historical sense, too much skepticism, is not, of course, very good for getting things done. ... Fortunately, however, there seems to be little danger of our becoming too historically minded in America today.
This chapter was previously published as a book review in the New York Review of Books, March, 1984.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

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