Why historians would make bad policy advisers

Although few today would endorse Thucydides’ view that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest event in human history, the idea that his account has lasting relevance and importance beyond the war is widely accepted. This explains why he is one of the most cited classical authors, evoked in media discussions of topics as varied as the Brexit vote, the Greek economic crisis, the Russian annexation of Crimea and, most persistently in recent years, the tensions between the United States and China, in the form of the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’

.. But widespread acceptance of Thucydides’ authority disguises the fact that his approach to the past, and to the lessons that can be drawn from it, can be understood in very different ways, with radically different implications for modern history.

.. It’s time for them to start listening to historians as well as to economists – and for historians to develop a new discipline of applied history

.. The problem for any would-be applied historian lies in converting this necessary corrective of over-confident social-scientific assertions or politicians’ simplistic assumptions – the historian’s reflex ‘actually, it’s rather more complicated than that’ – into anything resembling the sort of practical policy advice that politicians or civil servants will ever take seriously.

.. faced constant demands for definitive statements about ‘the German character’ and whether ‘Germans’ could be trusted. Nuance and ambiguity are clearly regarded as an impediment to decision-making but they are the stock-in trade of the historian.

.. Their case for putting historians at the heart of government opens with recent examples of historical ignorance and naïve assumptions, about Islam, Iraq and Russia, which led to unnecessary mistakes; better knowledge of history would have revealed the complexity of those situations and, presumably, encouraged greater caution.

.. historical analogies are easy to get wrong

.. Some events are more familiar than others and come pre-loaded with meaning, which is why Nazi analogies are so popular and so invariably unhelpful.

.. His narrative is driven not by abstract and inhuman laws but by the deliberations and decisions of people, and so by the power of rhetoric, the rhetoric of power, and human susceptibility to emotion and self-delusion. Far from endorsing a search for simplistic historical analogies as a basis for policy recommendations, Thucydides would most likely regard this habit as further evidence of our limited capabilities for self-knowledge, deliberation and anticipation – another facet of the ‘human thing’ that leads us to make similar mistakes again and again.

Putting the Power of Self-Knowledge to Work

“I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other,” she writes. “It is this — that we do know more about ourselves now than other people did in the past, but that very little of this knowledge has been put into effect.”

.. childhood trauma — so-called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs — substantially increase risks for a range of negative outcomes, including dropping out of school, abusing drugs, becoming depressed, committing suicide, and being a victim of, or a perpetrator, of violence or abuse.

.. ACEs are common. Close to one in four people has three or more of these experiences, and they are far more prevalent among people under age 55.

.. And later, in the absence of healthy options, the way they cope with the pain, anxiety or shame is often by self-medicating. Nicotine is a great anti-anxiety medication, and the first prescription antidepressants were methamphetamines.”

.. There’s so much historic trauma in tribal communities,” she said. “Traditionally, children were seen as sacred beings and abuse was nonexistent.” But generations of displacement and discrimination, including the practice of removing tribal children from their families and placing them in boarding schools, where neglect and abuse were common, has contributed to persistently high rates of alcoholism, drug use and incarceration.

.. Usually, we’re so focused on the symptom level — addiction, abuse, disease,”

.. At present, the department’s recidivism rate — which it defines as committing a felony and returning to prison within three years — is 32 percent. Becker-Green’s goal is to lower it to 25 percent by 2020.