What does studying history teach us?

I read an interesting article by Mark Bailey in the Times today, kindly shared on this tweet. In it I learned that history has superseded PPE as the most commonly held degree among the nation’s MPs – 15% of all parliamentarians and 10% of the Cabinet are trained historians. Not only this but several high profile CEOs and 20% of head teachers in independent schools are also history graduates. What is it about the study of history which prepares such people so well for leadership?

The article went on to posit some possible answers to this question. Studying history enables the acquisition of ‘transferable skills’, such as the ability to grasp aspects of microbiology, climatology, theology and economics to understand the causes and consequences of events such as the Black Death. I’m not sure I would label these as ‘transferable skills’, rather I would describe them as accumulated domain specific knowledge which enables historians to interpret a complex set of events. Notwithstanding this caveat, I do agree with the main premise of the article.

The discipline of history requires us to weigh up often conflicting or imperfect evidence in order to fashion an argument about the past. You cannot be a historian and sit on the fence – you have to have a position. So do leaders. They are called upon to make difficult decisions, to weigh up all the different options available and to find answers. They also need to be good communicators, whether through ‘high-order literacy or inspired storytelling’. Seen through this lens, there is obvious confluence between historians and leaders.

I would go even further though. I think one of the most valuable prizes of a history education is that it helps to develop our understanding of the human condition. More than any other discipline that studies the past, history focuses specifically on the actions and motivations of individuals or groups of people or governments. It asks questions such as why did they act as they did, what were the consequences of their actions, how did they change over time and what impact did they have. The answers to these questions always relate to human needs and human frailties. The circumstances and environments may change, but human nature endures, remarkably similar throughout the mists of time. Human conflict almost invariably comes down to the need for safety and sustenance, the competition for limited resources, ego and the lure of power – universal human traits.

By studying people who lived before us and asking questions about their motives, by examining the politics and societies of the past, we learn valuable lessons about mankind. These insights about fellow humans are hugely beneficial in leadership roles where often you are called on to manage people, to understand the needs of your stakeholders and to provide solutions to their problems. There are many lessons to be learned from the past. For me the most important one is that it teaches us about who we are as humans.

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