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Readers reply: what are the lessons of history and why don’t we learn them? | Life and style

What are the lessons of history and why don’t we learn them? Thomas Jefferson Knowland, Yorkshire

Send new questions to nq@theguardian.com.

Readers reply

“The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” (Friedrich Hegel). “Histories make men wise” (Francis Bacon). The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between. Johannes07051833

Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that measure, we don’t learn from the lessons of history because we are insane. As for what those lessons are, one that has to be high up there is attributing quotes to Einstein with no evidence. BellaTheCook

A prime example is trickledown economics, which has failed in three separate centuries from the 19th onwards but which Rishi Sunak is still determined to revive in a different guise. Another is reducing corporation tax in the hope that companies will invest in jobs. The US tried this and mostly what happened was that directors’ pay went even higher and the companies spent their tax reduction on buying back their shares. Another good example is the idea that increasing penalties reduces crime. Germany found the better solution was to detect and catch more criminals. diogenesfan

Ah yes, but I think you are making a mistake there, on whether or not the people proposing trickledown economics really thought it would work, or had any interest in it doing so. Paulo777

Punishing the poor won’t make them rich. yahbut

Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Sagarmatha1953

I think that the most important lesson history has taught us is that a competent leader is an essential figure for a population. Sofia Battafarano

Never go back for your handbag. Gryphone

Don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters. SimonKennedy

Lots of ways to make money damage the planet. Lots of us do learn but the moneymakers and shareholders don’t because they think their money is more important. Unfortunately for all of us, they will learn in the end. Nora Boswell

There are a lot of lessons that are inarguable. The US economy rollercoastered through crash after crash until banking was regulated in the Great Depression, and then when those regulations were removed under Reagan it went back to being a rollercoaster ride. It’s not really a mystery. I know the Republicans try to ignore that, but it’s not so much based on a different perspective on history as it is: “Don’t look over there!” Thomas1178

If there is a lesson to be learned from history, rather than our own personal experiences of it, it’s that there seems to be no limit to the callous cruelty, sadism and selfishness that people will allow themselves to exhibit, once they are in a position to do so, and nobody stops them. Aireman

Every generation thinks the problems they face are unique, and don’t imagine for one minute that any human or society has ever faced the same dilemma. As such, any possible lessons from the past are discarded, or not even considered, with the “that was then, this is now” attitude. The solution is there, it’s been used before, just see if the past can provide the answers. Lycurgianite

Generally, this is something you say when you lost the argument last time around. So now you want the next generation to make the same case again on your behalf, ideally with a heavy dose of “I told you so”. MickeyFynn

History is a single unrepeatable process from which we can learn nothing. John Owens

Learning is both an intellectual and emotional process. It is the emotional learning that often has the bigger part in behaviour change. We may learn intellectual lessons from history books but not emotional lessons. Maxtoby

The study of history involves at least two differing viewpoints: the view of the present, when we read and observe what happened in the past; and the view of the past itself, what they said, did, felt, experienced in that time. The closest, best analogy I can think of is it is akin to a parallax: “The effect by which the position or direction of an object appears to change when the object is seen from different positions” (OED entry for parallax). Therefore, there are very few absolute lessons of history. (One absolute lesson – which we have learned and are still learning – is that human rights are universal and non-negotiable.) There is much to learn from history, for both our present and our past. But what those lessons are? For most things, it is too early to tell. ChrisLoughlin

It was only when I went to the European Hansemuseum in Lübeck, Germany, that I realised the trading system they had constructed some 700 years ago was highly sophisticated; I then found myself amazed that people then could have such complex ideas, and then found myself wondering why on earth I would think that these people were somehow stupider than myself. I then realised that humans are condemned to make the same mistakes in perpetuity because we are outrageously arrogant. Hubris and complacency are our downfall. roidespines

There is no such thing as the “lessons of history”. At best, it is a comparison between what we believe happened, according to the imperfect way that history is recorded, and what we believe might have happened had different decisions been made. In other words, no real value at all. AlGlagow

“Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history, and the view of every one of the world’s religions.” (John Gray, Straw Dogs). Violator

Because the very rich and powerful promote the idea that “history is bunk” so that they can carry on as before. ThePunkOpaque

We do learn the lessons of history; that’s why society in general is richer, healthier, more peaceful and longer-living than hundreds of years ago or even decades ago. People might say that is largely to do with science and technology, but those are two of the most important tools we have developed to help us learn and solve the lessons and problems of history. Shortordercook

My observation is that history and religion are alike in that people pick out the parts that support what they wish to believe and ignore anything contradictory. The social media today, et al, supports this exponentially. Wilson McIvor, Virginia

The practice of drawing lessons from history is fraught with difficulty; things change, making direct comparison challenging. Given the breadth and depth of history, which exists as a body of interpretive practice rather than fact-collation, apparent lessons will also differ from author to author. This has a direct bearing on why “lessons” are not learned; quite often, the key thing to take away from an event is of the continuing marginalisation of minorities or those outside power, to maintain a particular social order. As, until relatively recently, history was overwhelmingly written by people who benefited from that marginalisation, readers of their texts were unlikely to learn the lesson of how power works, because their history was intended to obscure those functions and render their social position “natural”. TLDR: history is about power and power likes to aggregate power to itself. Mitch Goodrum, Oxford

We can’t get a grip on history,
it stalks too close behind.
We live and learn
then die and forget
and thus it slips our mind.
Bernard Towers, Norfolk

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