The Lens of History


How do people make sense of events in the world around them?  One way is by drawing on previous personal and historical experience.  If you go out with someone whose actions remind you of some earlier romance that ended badly, what do you do?   Continue to see that person or . . . .?  In the United States, the Vietnam war is a reference point for American foreign policy--Will what we are thinking about doing (in any particular situation) lead to another Vietnam?  What does that statement do to public debate? Another example.   In the current Republican presidential primaries--some of the actions of GOP candidates are compared (by opponents) to President Clinton while other actions are regarded  (by candidates themselves) as clearly in the spirit of Ronald Reagan.  In short our initial reaction to any situation is to try to understand it by analogy.  We use our experiences from an earlier, presumably similar, situation to give us a sense of understanding in the new situation.  The use of analogies based on the past is one meaning of "lens of history"--we use past experience to make sense of present dilemmas.  

The concept of the "lens of history" can mean something else.   What do we do when we think we need to know more about an issue than we can learn "by analogy"?  In the examples in the previous paragraphs, the person you are now taking out is not the same person you broke up with earlier, the new military situation is not actually Vietnam and none of the Republican candidates are Clinton or Reagan clones.  In other words while analogy is useful for providing a sense of understanding of an event, it is not the same thing as actually understanding the event itself.  For that we need to use the "lens of history" in a different way--to try to gain a good knowledge of the actual background to the events under study.   What are the concerns of the people, the values of the cultures, the goals of leaders, the economic conditions of the area?  How have these and other factors shaped the situation and defined the range of possible options for solutions?   Historians do not really believe that each moment in life is a totally "new" moment where everyone has total freedom to decide what to do.   Instead each moment is at least partially defined by past events and decisions--as well as our own previous, personal decisions.  For this reason historians often feel that the lens of history can provide a fuller and more realistic understanding of a situation than we can get by reacting to analogies based on the past.

This section may make it sound as if the first use of lens (analogy) leads to false understandings while the second use (the understanding of the actual historical background) leads to true understandings.  This is not really correct.   Analogies can lead to good as well as false insights.  And aspects of the actual past may be irrelevant to decision-makers.  In reality historical study of issues which are part of current debates requires an understanding of both aspects of the "lens of history."  

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