Do History teachers see their profession as dying? The next career to go the way of the music industry? Replaced by Google and the ability to look up any fact in under a minute?
It’s become fashionable to say that knowing is obsolete. After all, when we can find any piece of information we need online, why learn it in advance? Wouldn’t our time be better spent on something else?
And the answer is yes. But also no. Yes, the current way we teach and learn history, and many other subjects, is becoming obsolete. But we need to replace it with a better way, not eliminate it altogether.
Google Is Amazing, But Not Omnipotent
“If it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist.” – Jimmy Wales
I don’t know how much information Google currently houses. It’s probably petabytes more than I can even wrap my mind around. An engineering marvel in terms of warehousing that quantity of 1’s and 0’s and organizing it to the point that it can be retrieved instantaneously.
It’s also not exactly modest. Watch how it tells you it returned about 432,000 results (0.49 seconds). Alright Google, I get it, you’ve got a lot of results for me. I’m sure the 431, 990 that I don’t bother to look it are great.
The sheer power of Google is nearly unlimited. If the Internet is full of unfathomable amounts of information, Google is our conduit to finding the needle in this infinite haystack.
From that standpoint, Google can help us learn anything we want to know. But unfortunately, this isn’t always as helpful as we’d think. If it was, we wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes all the time.
The Plight of the Lesson Learned
“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” – George Bernard Shaw
Nearly every company has a “Lessons Learned” program. And they’re all largely uninspired copies of the same basic strategy.
Someone has an issue. Usually they screwed something up. They write up a summary, describing how someone with the benefit of hindsight would never have been so dumb. This all populates a database. And it’s stored there for all of eternity, ready to spread it’s knowledge to every individual so inclined to pull up that entry and read about it.
Nearly each company maintains this treasure trove of information. All recorded and accessible for anyone in the company to see. Yet if you go through them, a surprising amount seem to repeat the same mistakes. Most companies trend minor issues fairly repeatedly until they build into a major problem that causes a large group, or at least a top manager, to get fired. But until then, it’s a common collection of similar issues on an endless cycle of repeat.
Why? Why would we repeat the same issues when lessons of previous mistakes are available with a few clicks? Because we don’t know what we don’t know.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates
Where did all of these parts come from? That’s the thought that continued to go through my head as I looked between the car engine and the pile of remaining parts to be re-assembled. And then another thought came in. You know, maybe I’m not as good at this as I thought. Turns out, the Dunning-Kruger effect had claimed another victim.
In studies on gun safety, driving skills, and college exam results, Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger repeatedly showed that when people are relatively ill-informed on a topic, they have an unrealistic confidence in their abilities. In one example, NRA members who rated their gun safety knowledge as high, scored particularly poorly when they were actually tested on the subject. Those with high levels of knowledge had much more realistic assessments of their abilities.
Just like someone who thinks, rebuilding a car engine can’t be that tough, I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out. But then is left with a lot of extra parts, many of which look too important to be left out of the final product…
In order for us to gain a realistic understanding of how ill-informed we actually are on a subject, we need to be fairly well-informed. Then we can appreciate the depth of actual knowledge available in that area. Otherwise we don’t appreciate our own level of ignorance. We assume that we don’t need to understand it further. So we don’t take advantage of the Internet or any other sources to gain more information.
Thinking we’re smart keeps us dumb. And against that impediment, Google is rendered powerless.
Consider Marcus Aurelius. Saying that he was a great man is an understatement. As emperor of Rome, he was the most powerful man in the world. Yet he implemented daily practices of discipline and self-control to ensure that despite his power, he lived a life full of self-respect, unselfishness, and tranquility. He took great care not to waste public funds, consulting the Senate before spending money, even though he didn’t need to. To finance wars, he auctioned off his personal possessions rather than raise taxes.
The historian Edward Gibbon considered the time-frame of Roman emperors which culminated with Marcus’s rule to be the period in which the “human race was most happy and prosperous.” He further describes it as “possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”
In Meditations, we’re offered the benefit of Marcus’s reflections on life and how he chose to respond to the daily pressures of running an empire and raising a family. His Stoic philosophy and pursuit of tranquility can serve as lessons to us all. Who among us wouldn’t hope to show the same restraint when confronted with such power? Who among us wouldn’t benefit from carrying an unselfish mindset through our own daily struggles?
We could all learn a significant amount from the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Just as we could from Nelson Mandela, Alexander Hamilton, and General George Marshall.
All of this information is available online or with a public library card. Anyone could look it up any time they want. But why would they?
If we’ve never been taught of Marcus’s accomplishments and struggles, his conflicts and character, why would we bother to look him up? Or perhaps we’ve already learned that he was born in 121, served as a chief lieutenant under his Uncle Antonius, and then served as emperor of Rome from 161 to his death in 180. In this case, we might be tempted to say that yes, we’ve learned all we need to learn on the subject of Marcus Aurelius and now understand his link in the chain of history. There’s no reason to delve further into the topic.
When we’re largely unaware of a topic, we’re typically comfortable in our own ignorance. We don’t actively seek out further information because we don’t believe that we need it. Google cannot force this information into our heads. Just as no Lessons Learned database can force people to review and understand the mistakes of those who came before them.
We can’t simply expect everyone to Google their way to intelligence. Without the context and initial understanding, there’s no driver to seek further knowledge.
So What’s Worth Knowing?
“The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts, but of values.” – William S. Burroughs
On his podcast, James Altucher will occasionally tell a story where he asks people when Charlemagne was born. No one ever comes close to knowing the actual date and he gives it as a sign of our failing school system.
The truth of the matter is no one should care when Charlemagne was born. If you ever need to know, that’s Google’s bread and butter. A couple clicks and BAM, you now know that Charlemagne was born on April 2, 742 AD.
And apart from history teachers and Lombard historians, no one should care. This information isn’t helpful. Unless we’re looking to impress everyone watching Jeopardy! with us. (Is it actually impressive to preemptively yell out game show answers or is this just annoying? Sadly, I already know my wife’s stance on this…)
Memorizing facts isn’t helpful. Learning information that we can apply to real situations is. And an often-overlooked source of this information is in those poor underappreciated history teachers.
History Is The Ultimate Guide
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many of us have heard the saying that “the best predictor of future performance is past behavior.” Aside from an HR-preached interviewing mantra, it should remind us that human behavior doesn’t change significantly over short periods of time. Without a conscious effort to the contrary, we will continue to respond to fear, confusion, and greed in collectively similar ways. It’s in our understanding of history that we can leverage these past lessons to improve our futures.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari helps us see how civilizations throughout history used class divisions to help a select minority control the majority of their population. And in The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro shows how a city planner’s influence worsened those divisions and promoted a separatist attitude that we’re still struggling with over half a century later.
By understanding the myths and methods behind historical discrimination, we’re more equipped to recognize and address them today.
In his short but powerful book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder presents historical lessons from the spread of last century’s tyrannical regimes. As he discusses the importance of this knowledge,
“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
Snyder gives us chilling insights into fascist tactics that successfully spread dissent and fear in their quest for control, with enough parallels to our present state to help us see what could be at stake in our near future.
Whether it’s these lessons or countless others, history is full of past examples of how humans respond in different situations. Without this knowledge, we lose a critical tool to help us respond better than our predecessors.
Returning to Snyder’s words, “History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique.”
Knowing Precedes Conversations. And We Need Conversations.
I despise the word “academic.” It brings up images of men wearing tweed jackets, arguing amongst themselves on insipid topics for the express point of building up their own egos. People who’ve never experienced a real struggle and whose commitment to learning brings no benefit to the rest of the world.
When learning is pursued for “academic” purposes, our focus moves from actionable information to testable information. And too often, information worth learning does not lend itself well to testing.
And then we’re right back to memorizing dates. Because dates lend themselves to tests very easily.
But we don’t need memorized facts. We need ideas. We need conversations.
We need people to hold intelligent conversations over the issues of today. And the issues of tomorrow. We need people to bring new opinions and new perspectives to help confront these issues.
We can only do this when we bring our own voice to these discussions. Google cannot give us our opinion. We can only get there by knowing and understanding relevant information.
Knowing is not obsolete. It’s a precondition to action. It’s a precondition to conversation. And conversation is something we very much need.