Repeating the Past

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many quote George Santayana’s famous quote, but we seem to forget that the point of remembering the past is to not repeat it.

T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1921) reminds us how British (and other) armies in World War One used tactics from the Napoleonic Wars one hundred years earlier. Generals, relying on tactics appropriate for smooth-bore muzzle-loading muskets, slaughtered millions of their own countrymen sending masses of troops against machine guns and trenches. And they kept using those failed tactics. (Modern historians excuse the million plus casualties in the 1916 Battle of the Somme as a learning experience. Really? What was learned?) More recently we find the same tactics that didn’t work in Vietnam not working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Winning wars is hard; making peace is harder; changing mindsets is hardest.

Not just the military fall into this trap. Almost every training program which is not a hands-on apprenticeship depends on someone to teach the skills, presumably the skills already known by the teacher. And, unless that teacher is currently involved in the cutting edge of research and implementation of new practices, he is teaching what he was taught by those who learned it from other teachers. Business, law, medicine, teaching, seminaries, you name it. Seldom is the instructor a current practitioner.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” Moderns add, “And those who can’t teach, teach the teachers.”

Western culture has institutionalized repeating the mistakes of the past. Credentials shield the unqualified and unions protect under-performers. Protecting the very ones who might be weeded out by the market place. Today credentials protect professionals from staying current, even when the credentialing body mandates continuing education. Why? Because the student returns to be taught more out-of-date practices.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, hands-on experience is worth a thousand pictures.

People of a certain age see a pattern. History is repeating itself. Modern technology masks the pattern to those distracted by the noise and flash.

Apparently we have learned nothing from history. Therefore …

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