History is the key to the future

I’m not sure if I’ve ever blogged about this before, but I have a “life plan”.  Like all good plans, it may not survive contact with the enemy, but I figure having it is better than not.  It goes something like this:

  • Work hard at school, get reasonably good grades and graduate with a degree in something that was worth the investment to get it (done)
  • Marry my high school sweetheart (done)
  • Get a good job that pays well and gives me a chance to do something I think is worthwhile and has some chances for advancement (done)
  • Have some kids late enough in life that I can afford them, but early enough that I can enjoy them (done)
  • Develop some hobbies that let me find fulfillment outside of work (done – my wife would say overdone ;-).
  • Be debt free about the time the kids get out of college (on track – should have our last debt, the big one = the house, paid off by the time my son gets out of school in about 10-11 years).
  • Quit the good paying corporate job once the youngest is out of school and go into teaching. (check back with me in 10-11 years).
  • Retire from that after 20 years or so and see what’s left to do (I’m all for long range planning, but even I can’t get my head around what I’ll do if I have the privilege if living to 70).

This last one may seem odd to some.  I have all sorts of reasons why I want get into teaching (giving something back, I like to hear myself talk, summers off to tour the country in the RV I am going to get before I make the switch) but honestly it’s just something that I want to do from somewhere deep inside.  I can’t ignore it, so I might as well make it work.
The overall plan hasn’t changed much over the years (I’m serious when I say that I’ve wanted to do this for at least 15-20 years), one important detail has: the subject I want to teach.  Being an engineer by degree, (even though I don’t do much engineering for work, I’ve come think of engineers like marines…there are no ex-engineers) I was naturally drawn to want to teach match and science.  Outside of the fact that I seem to “get” math and science, there seems to be a big push behind better STEM education in the US.  It seems we are falling behind other nations in core technical areas, at least as far as the standardized tests say, and policy makers seem to think that will be bad for our future competitiveness in an increasingly technical global marketplace.  But in the last few months I’ve been considering a change….to history.
I have never been what anyone would call a history buff.  I went through the stages that a lot of boys go through where I was fascinated with WWII, specifically the tanks, planes and all the crazy death machines that mad scientists of the axis and allies dreamed up (ever seen a half track motorcycle?)  But I never really got into the reasons the US entered the war, the logistics of the Normandy invasion nor how Switzerland was able to avoid being invaded while it was surrounded on all sides.  Nor did I ever look into less violent periods of history before of after WWII.  So history has not exactly been a lifelong passion.
So why the change?  Some of the blame goes to Dan Carlin and his Hardcore History podcast.  I have been a long time podcast fan and a work colleague turned me on to HH a few months before my family and I headed to Europe.  I downloaded his 5 part series on the fall of Rome and listened as I toured through London and Rome, literally walking the streets where the history had happened.  While I have no illusions that I would be able to tell a story from history like Mr. Carlin does, listening to his podcast has made me realize that history may be a more important part of our future than science and math.
Don’t misunderstand – I think that we need to know how the world works and there is no better discipline to study to understand that than science and math.  But I also think we need to have a better understanding of how people work, and in my view one of the disciplines to study for that is history.  Of course there are other disciplines you could look at (psychology, anthropology) but the thing that gets me about history is that its real evidence – it actually happened.  People were put into a situation and this is how they reacted.  As you look at it more and more over a wider and wider timeframe, you start to see the patterns.  Different groups of people, separated by centuries, put in similar situations act similar ways.  Mark Twain was right – “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

But we seem to be forgetting these rhymes.  What’s going on in Egypt is a perfect example.  Even though the US administration is trying every way possible to not call it a coup, the facts on the ground are that the military ousted the government.  The democratically elected government.  The US administration seems so fixed on not calling it what it is because they are actually OK with the outcome.  They really didn’t like President Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood “party” or the policies they were putting in place.  A simple case of the ends justifying the means.
So who is forgetting what rhymes?  The egyptian military is forgetting the rhymes of past early democracies.  As Mr. Carlin points out in the most recent episode of his other podcast, if they would have just waited until the next election cycle all signs in Egypt pointed to some pretty major losses for Mr. Morsi’s party.  But they couldn’t wait and have therefore placed the Muslim Brotherhood in a more powerful position that they would have been if defeated at the ballot box – the position of martyr.  If the Egyptian military knew their history they might have been more patient.  The US administration is forgetting its rhymes as well.  The pattern emerging in Egypt is the same pattern that we were part of just 60 years ago in Iran.  We help oust a democratically elected Prime Minister to replace him someone more in line with our interests – the Shah of Iran.  The Shah kept things in check of a while, but when they unraveled 25 years later, Iran swung as far against the US as they could – and they remain there to this day.  Why does the US administration think that Egypt will work out any differently?
Math, science and engineering will help solve some of the problems we face – water shortages, real/safe food, energy efficiency.  But if we don’t compliment that with a better understanding of how people work, solving those problems may not matter too much.  I guess I need to get to reading…lots of history to catch up on.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland






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