And.. it's probably the one subject that really stands out from high school for me now. It wasn't so much learning about facts and figures but learning about the art of studying history, the difference between primary and secondary sources, the importance of good sources, and similar general principles that have continued to be useful to me as an adult.
I guess none of this would be surprising to anyone with a good liberal arts education, but approaching history as a math and science geek, it was a real eye opener for me as a teenager.
To the Americans on HN who are still in college: if you hated history in high school, give it another chance because you may be pleasantly surprised.
In fact, it's been the only opportunity in my high school program to consider and create arguments of such depth - so there's your intrinsic value.
I do think that some students might need more handholding than you in this particular question, however... (hell, I might get lost in that) but there is room for creating experimental learning with the ability to get in flow for all skill levels. But that's what good teaching is about.
Of course, the subject's so subjectively graded that no one's guaranteed that work is proportional to the resultant grade at the highest levels - so there's remarkably little pressure and far more experimentation done than you'd expect from a high-school programme. It's a strange arrangement, but I'm lucky to have fell into it.
But trying to turn it into something it's not -- a way of discovering new facts about the world -- is incredibly dangerous. Most educated people are aware that there are limits of reason, such as situations where the facts are so thin that the only honest answer is "I don't know". They are aware of the limits of science, where there is no practical experiment to falsify a claim and you have to fall back on tentative strategies like Popper's.
But then these people look at history, and see this giant pile of anecdotes, and all the sudden it's the Middle Ages again and we can hermenutic our way to wisdom by staring at it really hard, or as this website puts it, "having repeated experience in historical inquiry". But I don't get it; if there's a heuristic for knowing when trying to solve problems with history is worse than nothing, I've missed it. Until I figure that out I'm going to have to stick with "always", and this webpage doesn't give me a lot of reason to think otherwise.
How can history possibly be harmful? The OP makes the case repeatedly:
"History Helps Us Understand People and Societies", but it doesn't give us any basis for knowing if that understanding is based on broad stereotype or outright lies, or worse yet, someone else's interpretation of history: a game of telephone stretching back to the dawn of communication. Merely becoming an experienced historian so that you're less likely to fall into that trap isn't sufficient; you're starting at worse than zero so you have to assume you've just gotten less terrible until you have some solid reason to think otherwise.
"History Provides Identity." Identity, of course, being an organized system for dehumanizing other people. That history, true or false, is an incredibly powerful tool for doing this does it no favors as something you should voluntarily poison your mind with.
"Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship." Here we're getting back around to a better excuse for studying history: If it really is unavoidable, and history is somehow part of us that we cannot destroy, then maybe we need to fill that hunger with a nice pablum like the US civics curriculum. It's a harm minimization strategy, like giving opiate addicts a supply of quality morphine so they don't stick whatever they find on the street into their veins.
First, while it is true that historical evidence is imperfect, it is extremely uncharitable and frankly unjustifiable to call it a "pile of anecdotes," "based on broad stereotype or outright lies," and "worse than zero." Historical research is centered around primary sources, and while no primary source gives you a complete picture or has a single interpretation, they are not mere anecdotes or outright lies.
Second, no serious historian thinks you should use specific events from the past to draw grand conclusions about the present. The past loses potency when taken out of context. But the study of history still has applications to the present. When you have worked with incomplete evidence and conflicting interpretations of the past, you start to realize that your view of the present is similarly imperfect. Any one person only has an incomplete picture of what is happening in the world, but despite this, I encounter many people who think events or trends have only one cause and they know exactly what it is. As another example, people often expect the future to work out a particular way, and fail to appreciate the effects of other, unseen forces. It is easier to realize these fallacies when you have studied history, where information is more obviously imperfect and you have the benefit of being detached.
You are right about the limits of reason, but you are wrong to say that history is harmful: to the contrary it is one of the best ways for us to realize those limits.
You're taking "based on broad stereotype or outright lies," and "worse than zero." out of context, but I'll defend "pile of anecdotes", because that's what even good primary sources are: a non-representative data point of something that happened in an uncontrolled environment.
I appreciate what you're saying about the study of history being able to open your mind to the complexity of the world, but that's such a different goal for history than the article presents that I think you're defending a different thing entirely, and not the idea I'm attacking.
Oops, now you can no longer communicate with people - no "catching up" on events or "living vicariously" through them - all anecdotes. Can't be doing that. You cannot study a timeline or a log of events and believe it. You can't believe a story unless it happened in front of your eyes, but if you try to remember it, now you are recalling a history, so it can't be trusted.
Clearly, not a sensible opinion. So then what are you really saying? Are you saying that you don't care about _political_ history? In that case, you have plenty of people agreeing with you.
Political histories are popular in school curricula, but are only representative of a tiny, tiny fraction of all history. We also have a history of mathematics and sciences, social and culture histories, histories of the planet, the stars, and all known life forms. All "postmortem" style articles are historical documents. In each of these fields, the specific techniques differ and some are more or less falsifiable than others, but we are ultimately limited by physics, which imposes the final limit on how much of the real world can be "proven."
I would argue that the biggest achievement of the human race has been our ability to archive our past and learn from it, allowing one generation to build upon the achievements of the previous one. This is how scientific progress takes place; unfortunately, it is also how myths and superstitions are propagated, such as religion.
Anyways, addressing your specific points: history provides guidance to those facing similar situations. For example, James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, was influenced by the exploits of Robert Clive, of whom he had read in great detail. On the other hand, Hitler failed to learn from Napoleon's mistake and made the same mistake of trying to invade Russia.
Be it Military, Science, Economics or even law, history provides a rich database of prior experience from which we can draw lessons from and continue to make progress
My whole life is a pile of anecdotes! And yet I've used my experiences to build a functional mental model of the world. I can use history in the same way.
You argue that anecdotal data should be flatly ignored when making decisions. If that were true then newborn children would be the best reasoners on the planet. Your argument cannot hold in general.
Some of the value of historical study is that you get to discover just how ideas like "limits of reason" and "I don't know" as a valid answer come about in the first place, out of processes that have nothing to do with progress and advancement. This is the kind of historical relativism people start getting afraid of ("what do you mean there's no objective standards for most anything!"), but it's a result of historical inquiry that actually commends us to actually think about what we say, do, and take to be true. We can have conversations with one another only when we drop assumptions. History is key to all ethical conversation.
This post amply explains why that is happening.
But for the serious student, history can be very informative and useful. True knowledge takes a lot of time. One must find good sources, learn the context of various writers and how their biases might color their writings, learn how to separate the creditable writers from the propagandists, and read both primary sources and the finest secondary sources, And finally you must be willing to recognize the limits of knowledge, at some points you must admit that you do not know what happened and never will. But if that is all done, I think history can be extremely valuable for understanding the present and making good decisions going forward.
Convince someone that they have a sufficient level of historical aptitude to apply it and they can obtain and use falsehoods at a stunning rate.
Also, why should this mean the historical society shouldn't encourage more people to study history? When I studied history I felt that I was imbued with the importance of approaching history carefully.
So I suppose there's a parallel - it's got as much value as sufficiently high-level mathematics.
Also, even an anecdote can often prove something, namely the possibility of one thing. If you find one society or company that functioned in a certain way, it is a valueable data point.
What weird believes.
Of course all of that is possible. It’s not easy, it‘s not perfect, obviously. But it‘s possible.
Therac-25: A history of a deadly medical device design error and the organizational failure that accompanied it http://sunnyday.mit.edu/papers/therac.pdf
You could try The World We Have Lost. Or The Cheese and the Worms. Among others. Really, the options are almost infinite.
It is the account of a French man traveling around the United States in the 1890's It's not about organizations so much, but is a wonderful book about the general life of the times. It is the closest thing I have found to a time machine that let's you experience turn of the century America.
Democracy and the Party System in the United States: A study in extra constitutional government (1910)
by Moisei Ostrogorski
This is a very colorful political history of the United States. A lot of information about how the democratic institutions worked in practiced and evolved away from their formal and intended structures. Definitely a great antidote to the traditional civics class view of American democracy.
From that day, I started buying more and more books of history. Extending the story from 44BC in all directions. After that day (11 years ago) I can say that my life changed a lot.
Now things are different. If you're at a party or at someone's home with friends and history appears as a topic of conversation, everyone says something but rarely agrees with the story itself. It is normal to hear more nonsenses than good facts or stories, and this is how you begin to tell the history for the rest so they understand it, and they realize that you tell in a much more attractive way than a school teacher. Everyone looks at you so mesmerized that once you finish, never, ever, you regret having learned about the story itself.
I wish people would realise that data does come in more forms than just numbers. Numbers are useful, but the social and human sciences have much to teach even when their data is less statistically amenable. Some people are afraid of anything that doesn't have stats in it, and that is their loss!
It seems like a field that has a lot of relevance today, even if perhaps people practice it under different guises.
Thank you for the pushback, but you are part of an enlightened segment. It's about time I constructed a survey to ascertain the actual values and beliefs in this space among the HN community. I wonder if they let you do surveys here.
Know your 19th and 20th century history. It's remarkable how little gets communicated throughout a high school education.
A good grasp of recent history really changes your perspective on the world and how people get along with each other.
During your time period of expertise, an unwed woman finds out she's pregnant. What are her options?
It's year XXXX of your specialty. A dead body is discovered in the middle of a well populated area and the overwhelming evidence suggests he was murdered. Is anyone in charge of finding the killer? What is the attitude of the public and is there an expectation of justice?
How common was casual sex throughout history?
What is an example of humour from your period?
I think these types of questions would make great introductory history classes for students, rather than the linear blocks of 'for the next 10 weeks we learn about Ancient Egypt, then we learn Ancient Greece for 10 week' that was the structure of my first history classes.
"The ones who forget history are bound to live through it again"
And this is exactly the reason why we should teach history at schools.
 "The Modern World: Global History since 1760" https://www.coursera.org/course/modernworld
 "A History of the World since 1300" https://www.coursera.org/course/wh1300
In this era of anything-at-the-search-prompt and prepackaged-newsbite immediacy, the capacity to evaluate and compound large numbers of disparate sources in to a coherent and useful narrative is more valuable than ever.
Within programming, I certainly believe that this skill is critically useful for communicating the complex, multi-faceted environment around software systems: what led to their existence, how they differ from competing solutions, how they may be configured, maintained and integrated. More than once I recall people being astounded at my statement "I love writing documentation!". One former employer, when presented with a detailed report on a new third-party system, was simply shocked at the completeness and accessibility of the material: "Did you really write that?"
"The past is never dead. It's not even past." Faulkner.
group A: We want your [food, resources, women, whatever].
group B: Uhm, those are ours, you can't have them.
group A: Too bad, we're going to take them by force.
History is interesting, but the world has changed so much in the last hundred years, that most situations one encounters today have little relation to the past.
Humanity's base drives haven't changed, but most people like to pretend those don't apply to their ingroup, historical education or no. Simple, greed driven motivations only apply to Other People; we always ascribe more complicated and more noble motives to ourselves.
And more important, we study history to avoid reliving it.
Remember that the cliché is right: the winners write the history books. The antidote is primary documents (and humility). This doesn't mean you should ignore secondary sources. Just keep them honest by going to the originals from time to time.
(i'm sorry, i couldn't help myself)
I see value in history now.