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Tebrake on the Uses of History

Wednesday, 13 December 1989. 10:59 EST


It's good to see the HISTORY list so active. I've been following the discussion concerning the "uses of history" with considerable interest. In fact, yesterday I used a number of recent postings as the basis of a lengthy and fruitful discussion in the last meeting of my seminar (Historiography and Methodology), required of all new graduate students in history at the University of Maine. The group of seventeen split virtually in half between the views expressed by Martin Ryle and Don Mabry, defending the value of history in the formation of public policy (quickly dubbed the "optimists" by my students), and Skip Know, insisting that people trained in history have little of value to say to modern policy makers (dubbed the "pessimists"). That was yesterday, 12 December 1989. Imagine my surprise this morning, the 13th, while reading some of the accumulated e-mail that had landed in my reader, to find the latest posting of that inveterate pessimist, Skip Knox, as follows:

"One thing the Stalinists have done is kept the peace in eastern Europe for the last forty years. It will be interesting to see if those peoples can to manage it on their own now. I will also be interested to see if the West can keep its grubby nose out of their business. Judging from Thatcher's behavior regarding the conference on Berlin, I rather doubt it.

I wonder if anyone besides the historians and the diplomats remember what a God-awful pain eastern Europe was for so many centuries."

What has happened? Every one of his sentences bristles with the lessons learned from the study of history, some of which, I would hope, might underlie the formation of public policy in the future. While I would be willing to argue that the "God-awful" pain Skip blames on eastern Europe was compared to the pain that western Europe visited on much of the rest of the world, nevertheless he reminds all, as only a historian can, of the ethnic and sectarian strife that preceded the "peace" imposed by the Soviets as well as of the meddlesome tradition of the west. Frankly, I would rather have this apparently-reformed Skip Knox whispering in George Bush's ear on the matter of eastern Europe than someone whose only experience (whether directly or indirectly through the study of history) is limited to the Cold War years. Notice, I am NOT saying that history repeats itself or that the study of history can form the basis of accurate predictions. I AM saying, though, that I believe that someone like Skip Knox, who takes a longer view, would have a richer experience (even if achieved only vicariously through the study of history) to draw on were he in a position ot shape public policy than someone who only sees the last decade or two as relevant. Skip, welcome to the other side, you old foot-dragger.

Best regards,

William H. TeBrake, History, U. of Maine, Orono, Maine USA.