Two good books have come my way lately, with history as the subject. One is about Canada’s Afghan mission, the other about American economic growth and change.
The two teach me something about how we learn lessons from history. We learn lessons, yes. However the learning is not always the lessons that are there in the past, but rather the lessons we prefer to draw from experience to justify what we do in the present.
Stephen Saideman draws a lesson from our Afghan mission. Canada got two things from this military engagement and the loss of 158 Canadians there. One, we now have a “blooded” military with combat experience, and we are therefore, two, more respected by our NATO allies for having stepped up and shed our blood. The mission was not a success in any grander terms. The Afghan people are not better off for our intervention.
Robert Gordon describes the amazing changes in American technology and how that fuelled a unique era of growth and progress in living standards. My grandmother, born in 1888 and died in 1975, lived through change more amazing than what has come in my life, according to Gordon, and he makes a strong case. He says that period was unique — we went from outhouses, no electricity, no cars, no electronic media beyond telegraph,and awful medical knowledge, to a miraculous present. Such enormous change will not continue.
Do we learn from history? Not in any obvious way. The English Industrial Revolution was extremely well documented by English government reports and statistics, and historians have written miles of bookshelves on the subject. Yet as nations industrialized ever since then, they repeat the horrors — of exploiting child labour, oppression of workers by force, suppression of unions, destruction of the environment. The rich nations of theWest have done much to mitigate some of the atrocity of industrialization, but far from all we could learn, and the developing world ignores English history.
No, we do not learn enough from history to avoid the errors made in the past; we repeat them because there are always very powerful people who want to work their will in the present no matter the dire consequences for the “little people.”
Charles Jeanes, Nelson