History: The Indispensable Subject

BY David Delaney, Guest Columnist
Posted 4/7/21

I grew up learning that history is the indispensable subject. To paraphrase philosophers Edmund Burke and George Santayana, knowing history enables modern communities to avoid past mistakes. I am now …

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History: The Indispensable Subject

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I grew up learning that history is the indispensable subject. To paraphrase philosophers Edmund Burke and George Santayana, knowing history enables modern communities to avoid past mistakes. I am now sure that idea is wrong.

A chronological narrative of events is a good starting point for knowledge. But such records are only about 5,000 years old.

Archaeology enables us to learn from the fossil record that modern humans are at least 300,000 years old. While archaeology broadens our horizons beyond the limits of recorded history, the oral histories and traditions of those ancient people remain obscure to us. But those people still teach us.

Through genetics we know that our DNA links us with all humans across time and continents, beginning in Africa. Each of us is a kind of historical record of past people and events.

Of course, reading the human genome or DNA profiles of political leaders will not prevent war, genocide, economic catastrophe or pandemic. But DNA empowers modern society because it reveals how the brain develops and how we think and behave.

That knowledge is the starting point to understand behaviors and decisions that shape the course of humanity. After all, what is history but a sequence of highly consequential individual and group behaviors and decisions?

Psychology is today’s indispensable subject because it enables deeper understanding of humankind’s most important actions. To know how people make decisions about war, peace, economics, public health and security is to know, in rough terms, how the future can unfold.

In his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” psychologist Steven Pinker provides a sneak-preview. He observes that war and death by unnatural causes have declined precipitously over the last several thousand years. Humans have become a more peaceful, prosperous and humane species. The trend is enabled through rule of law societies that promote common principles of humanity and commerce.

Enlightenment-age philosopher-statesmen like Burke were instrumental in this trend. So were James Madison and others at the Constitutional Convention. They knew from intuition and historical accounts, but not through science, that tyrannical, demagogic personalities would corrupt and undermine democracy. With this knowledge they divided federal and state roles, shared federal legislative-executive-judicial responsibilities, and created an electoral college with the power to overrule a frenzied or uninformed electorate.

The Constitution essentially tames actions by public officials and voters that would harm democracy. It is as much a tool of pre-psychology as it is the foundational U.S. law and a historical record of humanity’s democratic interests.

The natural impulse is to ask how today’s deeper, scientific knowledge of the mind and human behavior can improve democracy, advance political thought and perhaps drive violence and premature death to near extinction. How could the Constitution be improved as a tool of modern psychology? Can states create the conditions that eliminate poverty, hate crimes and racial disparities? Could nations improve international law and institutions to prevent climate catastrophe, mass starvation or war?

History answers these questions with pessimism. Psychology provides hopeful answers — to envision new goals is to begin making better decisions than our predecessors knew to be possible.

Humans are a storytelling species, and history will always be an essential subject. Without a sense of the past, we lose the sense of self and place that emerges from intertwined personal, family and political histories. If we want the best for future generations, weaving the lessons of psychology and other modern sciences into those stories is indispensable

David G. Delaney is a N.C. attorney and Chatham County resident. He teaches in the UNC-Chapel Hill Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense.


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