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History provides us with a window into cause and effect

LESSONS FROM HISTORY is a compilation of essays written by prominent Australians grappling with the issues of our time. Part One addresses: HOW KNOWLEDGE OF HISTORY MAKES BETTER POLICY.

We begin with some very brief extracts from the contributors. First up, Graeme Davison: Writing the history of the future.

The wisdom of hindsight. It’s worth reprinting George Santayaba’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  History, it implies, may save us from repeating some past errors, even if it can’t tell us what we should do or what will actually happen.

The distinguished war historian Michael Howard concludes his book The Lessons of History (1989) on a sceptical note: “Each generation is presented with new problems and new challenges, and analogies drawn from the past are likely to be more of a hindrance than a help in solving them … If the past has anything to teach us’, he writes, ‘it is humility – and suspicion of glib formulae for improving the lot of mankind’. Page 13.

Hugh Stretton: ‘It is the more immediate and material function of history to make ready the tests and lessons of the past for application to the problems of the future,’ he wrote in his scholarly application to study at Ballioi College, Oxford. ‘I learn what I can of the history of ancient and modern civilisation so that I may better understand the tasks that lie ahead of my generation in the troubled and perilous future.’ Page 18

History and planning Stretton argued, are kindred activities. In explaining events in the past, we employ a similar combination of values and skills that can apply to planning the future. History is a corrective to narrowly technical approaches to planning. In telling how things came to be, it illuminates the taken-for-granted, and potentially changeable assumptions behind our way of life.

By reviewing the chains of historical causation, it gives us a grasp of the complex, and often unforeseen interactions between facets of society often studied separately.

It illuminates the causes and effects of policies and decisions that seemed sound at the time but turned out to be flawed. It attends to the importance of different time scales in the process of planning. And it tells us something of what the present owes to the past and, in turn, what it might owe to the future. Page 20.

This is all very relevant in the case of Munibung Hill, especially with the planning process and how to ensure, what we believe were the errors of judgement in the past, will not be repeated in the future.