This is a guest post by Christopher Nelson. Christopher is an educational consultant and freelance writer. You can contact him here.
There’s a hilarious scene in the classic 80’s comedy “Back to School” in which, on the first day of class, a psychotically passionate history professor tells students that, “A lot of people think history is just a bunch of facts and dates about the past… but not me. I hold history sacred. The way a Christian holds the bible sacred, the way a farmer holds the ground sacred, the way a lot of people hold their marriages sacred.” He then proceeds to rip a desk apart when explaining to students what, in his view, really happened during a particular historical event. I don’t hold history as comically sacred as all that, but I do think history holds an immense amount of practical value. It really is more than just a lot of useless acts about the past. Entrepreneurs especially might agree.
A good written history never fails to grab my attention. I can enjoy reading something on the history of English Civil War or the history of underwater basket weaving in Peru. This isn’t just because, if done well, history provides enjoyable narratives akin to a work of
literature. As it happens, David Hume, who in the 18th century wrote a magisterial history of England, thought that history could contend with novels for the public’s reading attention. But there’s more than just narrative for me. It’s about imagination.
It’s an overused cliche that those who failed to understand history are doomed
to repeat it. Certainly those who fail their courses in history are doomed to repeat it in summer school. But for those working outside traditional schooling, with no grades to worry about, actually face something more dramatic: fail to understand history, and be doomed to know less about how, as a civilization and a people, we got here, and therefore where we might be going, or at any rate how we might think about getting some place we want to go. Reading about the past expands our imagination about what might be possible, because history shows us what’s already actually happened. And who knows, what’s already happened might show us ways to improve what we’re doing now, or make us realize that what we think is impossible obviously isn’t.
When someone says of the market, “without concerted, central effort, who will build the roads we drive on?”, we can look at history and answer, “the same way they were built before the public sector largely took the role away from the market.” How many people know that in the 1800’s in the United States, thousands of companies helped finance and build roads across the country? Anyone interested in how to better supply this good to the market who took the time to look into historical accounts of private roads would. Entrepreneurs, alert to new opportunities, might ironically find that what’s new is actually something we’ve already tried but just forgotten about. Who knows, history might be the competitive edge you’re looking for!