Disrupting the Past: (Channeling David Brooks #2)

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New York Times columnist David Brooks

As readers of my blog know from a previous postingNew York Times columnist David Brooks is an alumnus of the University of Chicago. Famously he got his big break when he wrote a satirical parody of William F. Buckley’s memoir Overdrive, just as the conservative pundit was coming to campus to deliver a speech. On the strength of the parody, Buckley paused mid-lecture to offer Brooks a job at the National Review, an offer that Brooks took up a few years later.

I enjoy Brooks’ columns and like the way he struggles to reconcile opposing concepts and ideologies without either compromising or settling for one side over the other. In this respect he resembles political scientist-turned-management writer Peter Drucker, whose central preoccupation was the tension between the need for continuity and the need for innovation and change. The appeal of the ecocycle, the central dynamic of The New Ecology of Leadership, is that it too deals with the tension between conservation and innovation. Indeed, in next week’s blog I will argue that this is the essential appeal of ecological frameworks. In any event, when over a year ago, the University of Chicago Magazine ran a David Brooks parody contest, I felt I just had to enter. While none of my entries won, but I enjoyed writing each one of them in the style of Brooks. The limit was 500 words and here is one of my other entries:

Disrupting the Past

University of Chicago Magazine: David Brooks Parody Contest

“History is bunk”, said Henry Ford and many of us, recalling high school history as a solemn chronicle of stale facts and dead people, would probably agree. We shouldn’t. Daniel Boorstin said it well, “Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

There are at least three good reasons for studying history. The first is to understand how effective strategies (methods of getting things done) usually arise from competencies (virtuous habits acquired over time from many different sources). There are no short cuts to excellence and we should be wary of those who promote them. We could probably get rid of 90% of management books for starters.

The second reason is to discover and discipline potentially helpful analogies drawn between past events and current predicaments. We can know the future only by analogy with the past. A study of history would have protected us from the argument that Saddam Hussein was like Hitler; it would saved us from seeing nation-building in Vietnam as similar to that in the Philippines.

Of course history doesn’t repeat itself. French historian Marc Bloch saw this as history’s strength, describing it as “…the science of change. It knows and it teaches that it is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.”

Thus we learn from history that causes have contexts and thus contexts matter in human action. This is a quite different situation from the context-free world of the hard sciences, on which unfortunately, so many of the social sciences have modeled themselves.

The third reason to understand history is to detect anomalies in patterns in the flow of time. The future can come only from the past but what matters are not the continuities but the singularities; the dogs that don’t bark.  A study of history can help us pay better attention to what’s happening, right here, right now.

But to detect the anomalies you have to know the patterns and the patterns are always changing. Historian John Lewis Gaddis argues that if the past is a landscape, then history is a map, abstracting some features at the expense of others. The features that interest us depend on the issues we face.

As issues change, history becomes a source of novelty and historians entrepreneurs. Their role is to disrupt the past with new interpretations in just the same way that innovators disrupt the future with new inventions. As historian Elliot Gorn has pointed out, Americans are increasingly a people without history, with only memories, full of easy myths and cheap emotions. This means that we are “poorly prepared for what is inevitable about life — tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity — and, therefore, a people reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues.”

There is much talk about releasing America’s entrepreneurial spirit to solve our current dilemmas, to come up with roadmaps for the future. Let’s not forget – we also need new maps for the past.

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