The power (and peril) of generalization

“Generalization is one of the most powerful weapons in the human arsenal,” according to episode 3006 of The Engines of Our Ingenuity, a long-running public radio series produced by the University of Houston. Generalization is described “as the act of taking specific examples and making broader inferences.”

A key concept of Future-Focused History instruction is the recognition that general principles of knowledge can be derived from the subject matter of history, just as they are derived from other intellectual disciplines. Although such principles constitute the foundation of learning in academic subjects other than history, they are absent from the official history curricula taught in our schools and colleges.

According to the University of Houston broadcast, generalizations have “led us to a profound understanding of our world….[They] allow us to deal with situations we’ve never encountered before.” But generalization can be a two-edged sword if we make generalizations that simply aren’t true, such as all Republicans—or all Democrats—are bad people.

The episode continues, “Counterbalancing our ability to generalize is another powerful human capacity, our ability to reason. Reason allows us to look at the details of a particular situation…and make our best reasoned determination” as to what is and isn’t true. The episode concludes, “One can argue that [generalization] is human kind’s greatest strength….just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the facts.”

It’s tragically unfortunate that historical learning systematically overlooks what might be human kind’s greatest strength.

. . .

This University of Houston episode runs just under four minutes. A transcript and the audio can be found here: Engines of Our Ingenuity, 3006, generalization.

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