“Why Study History?”

Gagnon, Paul

The Atlantic Monthly, November 1988

pp. 43 - 66

Wonderful piece whose central claim that the study of history (p. 44) gives us good judgment: “a sense of the comic and the tragic, a bone-deep understanding of how hard it is to preserve civilization or to better human life, and of how these have nonetheless been done repeatedly in the past . . . a sense of paradox, so as not to be surprised when a failure teaches us more than victory does or when we slip from triumph to folly . . . a practiced eye for the beauty of work well done.” All these things require historical “habits of mind” that promote good judgment: ‘to disrespect the simple answer and dismissive explanation, to discern the difference between fact and conjecture; to grasp the complexity of historical cause, to respect particularity and avoid false analogy, to recognize the abuse of historical ‘lessons,” to be prepared for the irrational and accidental in human affairs.”