By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana – First and foremost Hispanic-American philosopher, writer and cultural critic
Let’s talk about History and why we all need to make knowing about our global collective past a priority.
The New York Times noted recently that since the recent recession, students on US campuses now view a college education as a vocational training ground and that spending time studying history and the other humanities offers no immediate pay-off. At Stanford University’s main undergrad division, while about 45% of the faculty is clustered in the humanities, only 15% of its students are enrolled in courses like history and geography. Nationwide, the percentage of humanities majors on US campuses today hovers around 7%–about half of what it was in 1970. Clearly, learning about our past is not the priority it once was.
This is a big deal. At no time in our history have Mr. Santayana’s words (quoted above) been more prescient than now. We can’t risk having a population that knows nothing about its history, other people’s perspective and with little understanding of who they are or where they came from. The result would be a population with no appreciation for the factual and who are happy accepting that what they believe IS, whether or not it actually is.
More importantly, however, the fundamental skills we need to grasp historic events and their consequences are the same prerequisites for success in any endeavor. Granted, most of us will never be asked who Patrick Henry was on a job application. But, historical knowledge arms us with the ability to understand causal relationships, how things correlate and how and why actions have consequences that extend well beyond their original occurrence.
Furthermore, historical knowledge provides us with a framework in which to understand ideologies like religion and social movements. It helps us understand human beings and their motives, why they believe what they believe and act the way they do.
No one doubts today’s world is more global and inter-dependent. Our political leaders are challenged daily by an increasingly dangerous world in which there are no easy responses and solutions. Meanwhile, the business community faces its own pitfalls as ownership, sales and production of goods cross borders, even as about 70% of those who do venture overseas either fail or face unexpected hiccups. In both these examples, government and business often neglect to understand the history and culture of the countries in which they’re involved.
Examples abound of our current government making foreign policy mistakes by simply missing or ignoring basic historic realities. This has been especially true in the Middle East where for the past 6 years a disregard for the region’s cultural psyche has resulted in disastrous outcomes.
In my book “You Can’t Lead with Your Feet on the Desk,” I speak of the need for a historic context when doing business in any foreign country. Most cultural challenges faced by governments and businesses are the result of an event that occurred in the far distant past. The examples are too many to list here, but some learnings from a historic perspective would be to not put an English CEO in charge of an operation in Ireland, or have a Pakistani executive lead an Indian enterprise, or a Japanese executive run a Korean company. Past historic events created conflicts between these national groups that may never be fully bridged culturally, even if these conflicts are no longer openly mentioned or discussed. Other examples include the division of Czechoslovakia into 2 independent nations, the former Yugoslavia into a number of independent Balkan states and recent Russian attempts to regain influence over some of its former states. Without a true understanding of the depth of China’s 5,000 years of history and the impact of the Opium Wars on it, one can’t begin to understand its current relationship with the West.
It’s time we reintegrate History into our collegiate curriculum especially for those who wish to pursue careers in business or government. As the ever pragmatic Harry S Truman once said, “the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
Originally posted in Forbes