Why study history?

At 3 PM on the afternoon of Election Day, I interviewed Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, Under Secretary of State and Deputy Chief of Staff in the Bush Sr. administration, and Deputy Secretary of State in  the Bush Jr. administration. The interview wasn’t about the election. It was about history. Specifically, what use is history for policy-makers?

Zoellick ended the interview with an interesting observation. He said people tend to imagine important outcomes are the result of deliberation and carefully constructed schemes: Things happen because decision-makers intend them to happen. In reality, miscalculation and accident play a much larger role. Serious students of history learn this — which can help them avoid making an assumption that can be as dangerous as it is false.

Later that day, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 election.

With such a shocking and momentous result, it is particularly tempting to imagine there was a grand plan, masterfully executed. Big events must have big causes, right?

Not necessarily. Students of history know, as do readers of the Bible, that sometimes “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Previous post: