General principles of history cannot be considered laws or rules that always apply in the same way to similar circumstances. Rather than rules, principles of history are tendencies that can be identified by observing recurring patterns in the historical record—tendencies that can serve to inform future judgment in the realm of human affairs.
Principles of history are similar to principles of social science fields such as psychology and sociology that likewise deal with variable human behavior. Although not every human is afflicted with depression or subject to mob behavior, these general principles are widely accepted in academic circles and routinely taught to students in psychology and sociology courses. Would we prefer to remain ignorant of tendencies like depression and mob behavior? How many people would suffer and die to such ignorance?
Yet history education leaves society ignorant of important principles of history such as: rising powers have a tendency to go to war with established powers (could it happen between China and the United States?), and many or most military invasions of distant lands fail over the long term (think Japan and Germany in World War II or the U.S. in Vietnam). How many people have suffered and died due to such ignorance?
History’s general principles may deal with momentous events that affect entire societies including events with the potential to involve large-scale death and destruction. It would seem that few intellectual disciplines can offer society more crucial principles of knowledge that history can, yet history education systematically fails to supply such knowledge to students and society. A great many people may have died due to the lack of useful knowledge that we get from history education.
Everyone says that we should learn from history—a wise sentiment but an empty one without a mechanism for doing so. In our schools and in our society we may learn about history, but we seldom learn from history. The most practical and powerful means to learn from history is to identify general principles that can be applied to new situations arising in the future, the mechanism utilized by virtually all productive human endeavors to provide knowledge useful in the future.
Historical evidence for representative examples of Principles of Historical Knowledge:
a. Major cultures and empires have followed a general pattern of growth, flowering, and decline throughout history. Evidence includes two thousand years of Chinese imperial dynasties and every other former empire that has existed on the face of the earth.
b. Humans tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal. Evidence includes Akhenaten’s attempt to replace the polytheistic religion of ancient Egypt with worship of a single god, the contrasting political systems of ancient Athens and Sparta, the French Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, and the present polarized condition of American politics and government.
c. Humans manifest an instinct to exercise control over others. Evidence includes the Babylonians, Persians, Athenians, and Romans of ancient times; the Mongol, Aztec, Inca, Spanish, French, Dutch, and British empires of more recent times; the Japanese and German invasions of Asia and Europe that initiated World War II, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the United States in the Philippines, Iran, Vietnam, and Iraq.
d. Humans exhibit a propensity to fear, dislike, kill, subjugate, and discriminate against people from groups different than their own. Evidence from history includes tribal warfare, genocides, slavery, India’s caste system, South Africa’s apartheid system, America’s Jim Crow laws, the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the examples cited in Item c. above.
e. Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control. Evidence includes Greeks in the fifth century BC, Cleopatra in 31 BC, Jews in 66 AD, Joan of Arc in 1428, England’s Elizabeth I in 1588, American colonists in 1776, Toussaint Louverture in 1791, Native Americans at the Little Big Horn River in 1876, Zulus in Natal in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Vietnamese people for the past thousand years.
f. Many or most military invasions of distant lands fail over the long term. Evidence includes the Persian invasions of ancient Greece; the Roman Empire; the Crusades; the Mongol conquests; European imperialism in the Americas, Africa, and Asia; Napoleon and Hitler in Europe; the Japanese Empire in China and Southeast Asia; the Soviets in Afghanistan; and the United States in Vietnam. Counteroffensive coalitions formed to throw back an initial aggressor generally appear to be more successful than aggressor-initiated invasions and serve to reinforce the general principle. Examples include the defeats of Napoleon, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.
The question: Are people more likely to understand, retain, and benefit from historical knowledge if individual historical events such as those listed above are learned in meaningless isolation or if these events are learned in the context of principles that describe how the world works—principles that students and society may apply in the future to inform judgment in human affairs?
- Eleven key principles chosen by readers
- Additional principles of historical knowledge
- How to teach general principles of history
- About Future-Focused History (and why teachers need to take charge)
- Future-Focused History is alive outside history class
- “Historical Thinking Skills: A Second Opinion”
- Sympathy for the historian
- Can we stop the decline of history education?