Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lessons of history

Partly as a consequence of the Greek trip, I am still firmly stuck in a world dominated by history. It is very hard for someone with my interests not to be when presently so absorbed in a history saturated region.

One of the things that I most want at the moment is a decent history of the British Empire. I have a pretty good general knowledge, but so much of the history is written from an English or British centric perspective (England with the Empire as an extension), various local perspectives (nation with Empire as backdrop) or theme perspective (mainly Imperialism as such). I want to know about the Empire over time as a more or less working entity (it was sometimes a pretty ramshackle affair). Without this, it's hard to trace influences in any comparative way.

I wonder where the phrase the dead hand of history came from? I did a bit of a web search, but in the time available could not come up with a definitive result. As a phrase, it does effectively capture the idea that the past can weigh upon the present.

During the week, I received an email from Australian Policy & History alerting me to the latest articles. I mentioned this new venture back in June. Its slogan, linking the past with the present for the future, summarises its aim: to link historians with policy-makers, the media and the Australian public. In doing so, it aims to inform public debate and promote better public policy-making through an understanding of history.

Sometimes understanding the past can simply inflame old wounds; the refreshed past becomes a weapon to be used for better and worst in present struggles. However, my experience has been that an understanding of history can play an important role in exposing and thus reducing the dead hand impact.

I said in my original post on Australian Policy & History that I was not a believer in the lessons of history. When I said that, I was really thinking of the way that the term has been sometimes used in the past, the idea that the study of history can somehow provide instructions that will enable us to future proof our moving present, our way of life, our civilisation.  That's far too grand for me. The ruins of Akrotiri, of Pompeii, of Rome itself, show the futility of that hope. Man may propose, but the Gods or Fate dispose.

At a simpler level, I do think that the study of history and especially history in a context can not only reduce the dead hand effect, but also provide useful principles and hints to guide current thinking. I must admit to a degree of frustration here, however. Too often, we seem to repeat past mistakes in our rush to achieve pragmatic outcomes. The past is dismissed as irrelevant.

There is quite an interesting case study here at the moment, the partial unwinding of some of the ideas and approaches in public policy that became dominant during the period of what I have called the flowering of the New Zealand model. This is being done as a pragmatic but partial response to the problems that emerged as a consequence of the sometimes blind application of that model. I find it interesting that there should be so little reference back to the experiences of the time.

Another interesting if perhaps less important example is the debate on the current mining boom. 2010 bears a striking resemblance to 1980. But that's another story.

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