Oct 19, 2022

History and Wisdom

Dinyar Patel

History is ultimately a method of thinking which relates past practice to today’s world. In this sense, history is an essential companion to wisdom, a method of applying abstract ideas to everyday human activities. Pedagogically, it strengthens our exploration and understanding of multiple dimensions of wisdom and wise leadership:

  1. Fundamentally, history is a cognitive tool, requiring the student to explore the furthest limits of knowledge while also understanding the limits of such knowledge. The acquisition of more knowledge instils in the historian a sense of humility and self-awareness about what we ultimately know and do not know. With the study of history comes the wisdom that a practitioner is the master of only a small corner of human knowledge: others, therefore, must be relied upon to fill in gaps.
  2. As a repository of “lessons learned” from past practice, history takes the messy record of human experience and distils it into comprehensive ideas and key learnings: a certain canon of thought. By taking a very long-term perspective on events, history can account for cumulative benefits and harms from particular actions and decisions. As a repository of past experiences, history can be, in the words of the French historian Marc Bloch, “the spur to action”: a way to apply past learnings to present-day problems, a way to channel the wisdom of the past into the contemporary moment. 
  3. History promotes healthy skepticism. The student of history is willing to question assumed facts and norms, since he or she realizes that many of these are subjective and a matter of debate. A good historian realizes that meticulous, in-depth research tends to dissolve preconceived notions and assumptions.
  4. History is not absolutist: it thrives on a diversity of opinion. The discipline welcomes conflicting perspectives and contestation of certain “truths.” Consequently, history promotes the tolerance and accommodation of different ideas and perspectives—all of which are essential components of wisdom.
  5. History instills in the student the reality of constant change. Nothing—not even wisdom—is timeless. Instead, the historian recognizes that the ground is constantly shifting under one’s feet: yesterday’s truths can look radically different when history applies a new lens. Our ideas and perspectives are in continual evolution, always necessitating new methods of understanding.
  6. In a related vein, history prepares the student to face uncertainty. A student of history realizes that nothing is ever preordained and that “Black Swan events” have the power to completely disrupt the social, political, and economic landscape at a moment’s notice. A good grasp of history, therefore, reinforces the need to be flexible, dynamic, and alert as one tackles today’s challenges.
  7. History is a powerful affective tool. When properly applied, it can melt away prejudice and preconceived notions by exposing the flawed assumptions and narratives which sustain hateful ideologies. Although a dispassionate endeavor, history facilitates compassion, chronicling shared human experiences and identifying underlying social dynamics which cross cultural and religious barriers.
  8. Lastly, history helps affirm the concept of justice. It has been an essential tool for seeking out some modicum of justice for past wrongs: slavery, colonialism, war, dictatorship, etc. Focused, as it is, on the long term, history exposes the unwisdom of moral compromises for short-term gains. It affirms an almost karmic notion of consequences for one’s actions. And it largely bears out Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous observation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In our efforts to produce wise individuals and wise organizations, history provides us with a record of past practice, a method of thinking, intellectual humility, a moral compass, and a temperament for understanding the world in which we live. The historian plays an indispensable role in translating past experiences into key learnings. “History doesn’t teach any lessons—only historians do,” the Indian historian Srinath Raghavan has recently noted.

AppLy Now