Mark Twain famously said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” When politicians and leaders ignore the potential insight from analogous moments in the past, mistakes are made that could have been avoided if they had paid attention to histories rhyming scheme. A recent article from The Atlantic by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson outlines how the president would benefit immensely from having a council of historians at his disposal.
Throughout the article, Ferguson and Allison point to many examples of presidential actions and consequences that could have been avoided if they had considered the advice of history. For instance, the Bush administration disregarded the historical context of the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims before invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. “He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East,” they wrote about Bush’s decisions.
“A lot of Presidents like a lot of Americans, don’t know a lot of history and it can be very useful... in giving us perspective,” said Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn on Boston Public Radio Tuesday.
Koehn believes that without the purview of history we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. She says a council of historians like the Medici’s and English King’s once used would provide guidance and recommendations that could not be attained by the relatively short briefing packets provided to the president and other leaders. “You have very well intended actions that do not necessarily work out the way they were supposed to because the leaders did not know the history,” Koehn said.
“I think We are a little cavalier about the past, and I think that it’s not that we don’t care, it’s just not at the front of our vision most of the time,” she continued.
To hear more from Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn click the link above.