Social Education 57(3), 1993, pp. 126
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

History: Signpost or Lamppost?

John C. Wilson
History may well be the most widely used of all categories of knowledge. Everyone, every day, uses history. In spite of many students' vehement protestations that they never have and never will use "this history junk," they have, and they will.
Each time individuals interact with a group of people, they call forth a mass of historical data. It matters not whether that group is made up of members of a local street gang, classroom colleagues, teammates, or neighbors. Every group has a history, a tradition. Each member of the group learns quickly to conform to the norms established by that history. Failure invites ostracism or expulsion (Vaughn 1985, 8; Perkin 1985, 71; Lichtman and French 1985, 277).

If history is the most widely used of disciplines, it also qualifies as the most widely misused-particularly when individuals interact with groups with which they have no face-to-face contact. Most people learn how to use history well in their contacts with immediate associates, but few learn the intricacies of using history effectively in interacting with more distant persons and groups (Schlesinger 1985, 316-19; Howard 1983, 195-96; Fischer 1970, 157-58; May 1973, ix-xii).

This realization was the most disappointing experience of my teaching career. For a quarter of a century I taught history in the public schools. I loved that teaching and derived a profound sense of accomplishment from it. I helped my students to discover their roots as U.S. citizens, to learn our ways as a people. I helped them to break out of the cocoon of their present, to tie that present to its sources in the past and to its potential for the future. I helped them to extend their understanding of the varieties of human behavior through the barriers of time and space.

This was all extremely rewarding. I still feel a measure of pride in reminiscing about those accomplishments. Nostalgic satisfaction is marred, however, by the memory of an accompanying failure. I failed to teach my students how to use their knowledge of history effectively as they confronted a current political crisis. It is not that they did not use their knowledge of the past to respond to the present. Everyone does that; everyone turns to experience as a guide to solving problems. History is society's experience; citizens cannot escape using it.

Unfortunately, having experience does not guarantee its wise use. Merely knowing the historical record is not enough to ensure making wise choices. Experience can mislead as well as lead. Throughout the 1930s, for example, leaders and citizens of the European democracies appeased the rising dictators. They knew their history and refused to repeat the mistakes of 1914-18. Never again would they permit the slaughter of a generation of young men.

At the same time, in the United States, Congress and the public insisted upon a set of rigid neutrality laws. They too knew their history. Never again would they be inveigled into abandoning the tried-and-true policy of neutrality. Never again would they be dragooned into the quagmire of Europe's wars (Adler 1966, 231-41). The West watched; Hitler conquered. By 1941, all the watchers found themselves engulfed in the most devastating war of all time.

Three decades later, this country's public and its leaders intervened in southeast Asia. Again history was the engine that generated policy. U.S. citizens, as well as leaders, committed themselves to avoiding the Munich mistake of 1938. No more appeasement. In the next decade, fifty-eight thousand young U.S. soldiers died. The nation divided. City streets overflowed with demonstrators ranting against counterdemonstrators. The final act of the tragedy witnessed the humiliation of U.S. helicopters scurrying from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon-a picture that still haunts the U.S. psyche. Once again, citizens had used their remembrance of things past to choose a policy leading to disaster (Kent 1985, 302-5; Fischer 1970, 247-50).

Having experience is not enough. Knowing the past is not enough. People of the 1930s and people of the 1960s knew their history and used that knowledge. They used their historical experience, however, as a signpost pointing to the route into the future. It was history that became the signpost to the road to appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and it was history that became the signpost to the road to containment of communism in Vietnam in the 1960s. Signposts are fixed, pointing in but one direction. Seldom do they show alternative routes. How much grief might the world have been spared had history been used as a lamppost-to illuminate policy possibilities-rather than as a signpost pointing to an erroneous answer?

Using History as a Lamppost
How can we use history as a lamppost? Let me illustrate by applying the process retroactively to a recent policy dispute. In 1991, after one hundred hours of ground warfare, George Bush and the other leaders of the United Nations Coalition ordered a cessation of hostilities against Iraq. The public, demanding that we finish off the hated Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guards, greeted the decision with a cry of outrage. Let us focus our attention not upon the emotional debate that was, but rather upon the debate that might have been. What historical experiences might have been brought to bear upon the question of responding to Saddam Hussein and his allies?

The issue was whether to destroy a defeated foe. The past is filled with comparable situations. Four cases come to mind immediately.

Case 1
In November 1918, the Allied and Associated Powers granted an armistice before destroying Kaiser Wilhelm II's Army. Although defeated, that army was still intact. A few months later, in the Treaty of Versailles, the Big Four gutted Germany's military machine, leaving a power vacuum in the heart of Europe (Kennedy 1987, 288-89). Although nature and geopolitics abhor a vacuum, it remained unfilled until Hitler reestablished German power in the 1930s (Taylor 1961, 71-78).

Hitler rose to power on German hatred of the Treaty of Versailles, on the German belief that they had been misled and cheated. He capitalized on the charge that Germany had never been defeated on the battlefront. Traitors, he said, had subverted it from within. He would lead a new Germany that would reestablish the Reich bargained away by those traitors, a Third Reich that would last a thousand years (Bullock 1962, 57-68, 88-93, 145-49).

Case 2
The people and leaders of the Allied Coalition in 1945 also faced the question of what to do with Germany. They remembered the debacle of 1918-19. This time they were determined to destroy Germany. This time, allied armies decimated German military forces before granting an armistice. This time, the victors divided enemy territory into four zones each occupied by allied military forces. There would be no doubt in later years that the Third Reich had been defeated-militarily, politically, and economically. Thus, they solved the problem of Germany (Kennedy 1987, 365; Howard 1991, 127-29; May 1973, 3-9).

The problem of Europe, however, remained. Destroying German power again left a vacuum in the heart of the continent. When the Soviet Union moved into that vacuum, the Western powers hurriedly assembled a new coalition to counter this new threat. Within a decade they invited their old enemy, Germany, to become an integral part of that new coalition (Howard 1983, 73-78; Halle 1967, 1-9; Gaddis 1987, 25-43).

Case 3
Germany was not the only nation thoroughly vanquished in 1945, and Europe was not the only site of a power vacuum. The allies, particularly the United States, also eliminated the power of Japan. A U.S. Army of occupation moved in and, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, imposed a democratic constitution strictly limiting the deployment of military forces outside Japan. Thus, the United States removed the Japanese military threat (Kennedy 1987, 365, 469).

As in Europe, however, this left a power gap in Asia-a gap the United States filled. Two major conflicts followed: Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, U.S. citizens bemoaned the lack of Japanese military support in the Persian Gulf and demanded monetary compensation (Kennedy 1987, 467-71).

Case 4
A century and three-quarters ago, following the wars of Napoleon, the victors reestablished the defeated nation. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria made defeated France an integral component of a reconstituted European power balance. They left no vacuum in the heartland of Europe although they took care to ship Napoleon off to Saint Helena. For two generations Europe enjoyed relative peace; for a century Europe avoided a general war (Butterfield 1985, 227; Howard 1983, 253; Seaman 1963, 1-9).

Questions to Ask
Which of these four cases would have been applicable to the crisis in the Persian Gulf? How might we have chosen among the varied lessons they teach? Were there really lessons to be learned (Howard 1991, 11)? Is creating a power vacuum a guaranteed recipe for disaster? Is reestablishing a defeated foe a guarantee of lasting peace? Should defeated leaders always be dispatched to the modern equivalent of Saint Helena? Do harsh terms of peace necessarily create the seedbed for a future Hitler? Which precedent shall we follow?

The past is a land of mixed messages. It does not furnish tailor-made answers to contemporary problems. What use, then, can we make of messages from the past? Although history does not, and cannot, furnish solutions to apply, it can offer us a set of pertinent questions to ask. An analysis of comparable past events suggests possible behavior by contemporary societies. History is the data bank of the possible (Stephens 1985, 325; Fischer 1970, 181).

How might people have used this data bank of the possible in the process of choosing a policy to adopt toward Saddam Hussein and Iraq? What questions begged to be asked? History illustrates how Hitler turned a defeat (World War I) into a treasonable sellout and consolidated his power. Could Saddam Hussein convert his partial military defeat into political capital either inside Iraq or in the larger Arab world? Would harsh treatment of Iraq have created a nursery for the rise of a new Saddam Hussein?

History illustrates how the destruction of Germany in 1945 created a power vacuum in the heart of Europe, a vacuum abruptly filled by the Soviet Union. Could Saddam Hussein be destroyed without decimating Iraqi military power? If UN forces destroyed Iraqi power, would this create an inviting power vacuum at the head of the Persian Gulf? Are any powers in the region ready, eager, and able to fill such a vacuum? These are only the most obvious of a host of questions that we might have asked.

General History
Questions come easily. What about answers? Where are we to find them? That is a more difficult process. To generate questions, we use what can be called general history-accounts of the behaviors of various groups of people, in various places, living at various times. We discover some ways in which different groups, at different times reacted to the kind of situation confronting us. In this case, general history awakened us to the potential dangers of power vacuums and national seedbeds of discontent. General history serves as the lamppost illuminating options and potential pitfalls.

To guide our choice among these options-to avoid the pitfalls-we again have no place to turn but experience. General experience, general history, will no longer serve, however. It can supply only possibilities. We now need probabilities. Which potential dangers would have been actual threats in the Gulf situation? Would Iran, for example, or Syria, have been likely to attempt to fill any power vacuum we might have created in the process of eliminating Saddam Hussein? If we had furnished the opportunity, would either or both have had the desire and the capability to exploit it?

Specific History
Only the specific history of the peoples directly involved can answer that question. Only a study of the patterns of behavior of each of the particular nations in question can provide a sound basis for an estimate of how each is likely to respond to such an opportunity (Howard 1991).

What does the specific history of these peoples tell us? What have they been doing? What have they been saying? Has Iran shown an interest in absorbing territory held by Iraq? Is there a history of border disputes between these two nations? How committed are the Iranians to the export of their fundamentalist ideology? What of Syria? Have they demonstrated the desire and the will to expand? Have clashes occurred between Syria and Iraq? What does Syria's behavior in Lebanon suggest about Hafez al-Assad's territorial ambitions? Are those ambitions limited or grandiose? A survey of the history of the words and acts of Syria and Assad, of Iran and its leaders, can supply us with the beginnings of an understanding of their patterns of behavior.

Patterns of Behavior and Thought
It is not enough, however, simply to study the behavior of the parties involved. We must probe behind the patterns of behavior and uncover the patterns of thought that motivate the behavior. Germans of the early twentieth century harbored dreams of greatness, of a Greater Reich. Hitler tapped those dreams and overran the continent of Europe. What about Iranians and Syrians today? Do they have similar dreams? Do the Iranians harbor dreams of a Greater Persia? Do they look back with envy upon the Persia that conquered much of the ancient world? What effect has the devastating eight-year war with Iraq had upon Iran's territorial and ideological ambitions? Do Syrians dream of reconstituting the biblical Syrian powerhouse? With Israel on its western frontier, would Syria feel safe engaging in adventures on its Iraqi eastern border?

Such probing beneath the surface of events is essential. We must examine more than occurrences of a people's past. We must delve into their response to that past. We must learn not simply what happened, but what they think about what happened. We must investigate not our interpretation of their past, but their understanding of their history. It is their interpretation of and their feelings about their past that will furnish the most useful clues to their probable behavior in a current situation (Fischer 1970, 187-242; Elton 1967, 30, 126-31; Howard 1991, 9-19; Jervis 1976, 18-31).

The central issue is probable future behavior. Policymakers, whether leaders or citizens, are inescapably in the forecasting business. The only rational basis for adopting any particular policy is the expectation that its adoption will accomplish certain objectives. We must predict!1 Furthermore, the only rational basis for prediction is an observed regularity that seems likely to continue (Jervis 1976, 32; Pratt 1985, 212-13; Trask 1985, 365-66).

Fortunately, the thought and behavior patterns of groups of people tend to persist. Changes in those patterns ordinarily occur slowly. The shock with which everyone greeted the revolutionary changes overturning the old order in eastern Europe illustrates how unusual such dramatic changes are. Knowledge of specific patterns of thought and behavior, derived from a study of the specific history of a people, is the soundest foundation for a prediction as to their future behavior in any given situation.

A Lamppost of Experience
Both general and specific history are essential. A knowledge of general history supplies questions; the study of specific history can offer us not answers, but the basis for a reasonable estimate of the probable response to our policies. Upon that basis, we as citizens, and our students as apprentice citizens, can make a rational choice among alternative policy options.2 Neither general history nor specific history can function as a signpost guaranteeing the correct choice of the path to follow. Rather, each can serve as the lamppost of experience illuminating first possibilities, then probabilities.

How can we teach apprentice citizens in our classrooms to use history-general and specific-in these ways? The problem is twofold. First, how can we teach general history in such a way that our students will learn to treat the general historical record as the repository of questions to ask rather than as solutions to apply? Second, how can we help them to learn how to use specific history to select, from the maze of possible consequences, the most probable effects of supporting a given policy option?

We can accomplish this task in a number of ways. We can use situations from either present or past-each has its advantages. We can overhaul the curriculum; we can modify the ways we use the current curriculum. The most direct approach involves guiding our students through a probing analysis of current events-first uncovering possibilities, then deciding upon probabilities.

Using Current Events
Teaching students to ask probing questions is the most daunting task facing social studies teachers. Answers are such comfortable companions; questions, on the other hand-real questions- unsettle and disturb. Why would anyone trade an answer for a question? Why would people deliberately endure the effort, the pain, or the uncertainty involved in questioning their current beliefs? Few of us indeed are willing to face such unpleasantness except in the case of necessity-that is, if our current answer fails to satisfy. We think-we question-when we must.

Recognizing this aversion supplies the clue necessary for developing an effective approach to teaching students how to raise questions about current issues. We must create in the students' minds the necessity for undergoing such a disturbing process. In short, we must undermine their current beliefs. I have long called this method the monkey-wrench theory of education. Throw a monkey wrench in the works of the students' ideas and they will be more than ready to learn, to question. They will beg to learn. Anything is preferable to the discomfort of existing in an answer vacuum.3

Readiness to Question
How might we create this readiness to question in the discussion of a current issue? The first decision-which issue to analyze-is the most important. The situation we select must be one on which most students have already developed an opinion. They must be deeply enough involved that undermining their current assumptions creates a degree of discomfort. Their involvement, however, must be less than intense. On issues of intense involvement, discussion generates confrontation; positions solidify and minds close.

An example of a situation meeting these criteria is one that we have already used: the recent public debate over the desirability of finishing off Saddam Hussein. Few people in the nation were neutral on this issue, but it was not a die-on-the-barricades type of question that precluded open-mindedness.

According to opinion polls, most people in the United States objected to the policy of letting Saddam Hussein escape the full consequences of his acts. I assume that most students shared this opinion-thus their involvement. How might we have encouraged them to question their conclusion? I must stress that the object of this exercise is not to bring about a change in any student's final position, but to help each student learn how to establish a sound foundation for policy choices: to teach each student how to question intelligently before reaching a conclusion.

One point of departure would have been to question why so many wanted so badly to destroy Saddam. In the early stages of the discussion, neither teacher nor students should attempt to evaluate these reasons. Our goal is to understand, not to judge. The teacher can keep the early questioning nonthreatening by asking not for the students' personal reasons, but, generally, why so many people in the United States objected to the president's policy. Because Saddam Hussein was evil? Because he violated human rights, murdering thousands of his people and torturing untold thousands of others? Because he threatened the world's oil supply and could hold our economy for ransom? Because he possessed weapons of mass destruction? Because he was an aggressor? Because he threatened our security? Because we hated his guts?

Once the reasons for advocating the destruction of Saddam Hussein were on the chalkboard, the next step would be to investigate the validity of those reasons as a foundation for that advocacy. At that point, it probably would have been wise to capitalize on the overwhelming current popularity of the president as a way of opening such an investigation. His general popularity would tend to make the students more open-minded toward his policy even if they opposed it.

For months George Bush behaved as though he hated Saddam Hussein. The president's words dripped venom: Saddam must capitulate; there would be no compromise. He summoned the Iraqi people to join the rest of the world in crushing this "Hitler of the 1990s." Every presidential word and act spoke of commitment to the fight against the menace from Baghdad.

Then, after one hundred hours of brilliantly successful ground warfare, Bush compromised. He halted the war, allowing Saddam Hussein to crush his internal opposition and for days the U.S. president refused to order aid for the beleaguered Kurds and Shi'ites. Why? A change of heart? Did the president suddenly develop compassion for the "Butcher of Baghdad"? Extremely unlikely. Was he blind to what was occurring? Nonsense. Everyone else was aware.

Coping with Ambiguity
This was clearly a deliberate choice. Why? Why did this president engineer a 180-degree shift in course, and in the process risk strong public disapproval? Why did he cast aside an unparalleled opportunity to accomplish the objectives he had proclaimed for months? Did he foresee possible problems that the public was ignoring? What might these be? Where do our ideas about potential pitfalls come from?

Examining the Source of Ideas
This last question opens the second phase of discussion. The objective thus far has been to create a climate of receptivity to questions. Once that is accomplished, we can turn to the major point of the exercise-examining the source of our ideas as to how to cope with a problem. That is, we can begin to examine our experience, our remembrance of the past.

Efficient probing of the past requires the establishment of pertinent categories of experience to guide exploration. For what kinds of experiences are we searching? The present crisis furnishes the necessary clues. The students will already have specified some of the major categories in their consideration of the reasons for public and presidential positions, for example: (1) evil political and military leaders; (2) destruction of the military power of an enemy; and (3) threats to U.S. sources of vital resources.

What have students experienced, in their study of the past, pertaining to evil, hated, threatening political leaders of foreign nations? What are some examples of such leaders? Hitler, of course, comes to mind immediately. How about Russian leaders Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev? What about Manuel Noriega? A little further thought and exploration should bring Napoleon Bonaparte to mind. Many regarded these men as the epitome of evil in their time.

Each of these men rose to power. Each, in time, disappeared. When Hitler's armies collapsed, he chose suicide over surrender. Stalin died. Brezhnev died. The U.S. Army captured Noriega and brought him to trial. Twice, victorious allies exiled Napoleon. Did the disappearance of each evil leader solve the problems faced by those he threatened?

The temporary removal of Napoleon to Elba brought only a temporary halt to the wars that had devastated Europe for a generation. His permanent imprisonment on Saint Helena ended those wars. The destruction of Hitler and Germany opened the door to the threat from Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin's death eased some problems, such as the Korean War, in the short term but did not prevent the Suez crisis, the Berlin Wall, or the Cuban missile crisis. Brezhnev's death coincided with the greatest buildup of U.S. military power during the cold war era. Noriega's capture solved an administration's public relations problem, but little else.

This variety of consequences attendant upon the removal of a threatening, evil, foreign leader is satisfyingly mixed for our purposes. This phase of the discussion must always proceed far enough to elicit conflicting lessons from the past. Only when the messages from the historical record are ambiguous or contradictory will we encourage our students to treat those messages as questions rather than answers.

After a similar examination of the other categories of experience, such as the possibility of a power vacuum, we can shift the discussion into its final phase: what specific implications does this mixed bag of historical experience have for the contemporary dilemma we face? What specific questions does our historical experience suggest we ought to raise about finishing off Saddam Hussein?

Post-Napoleonic Europe and the post-Stalin and post-Brezhnev Soviet Union suggest that we ought to investigate the question of whether the elimination of Saddam would remove the Iraqi threat to the Gulf region, or if Iraqi ambitions transcend this particular leader. Post-Hitler Europe suggests that we ought to question whether the elimination of Saddam would merely open the door to another, possibly more serious challenge. Would Saddam's removal, like Hitler's, require the destruction of his nation's power? This line of inquiry, of course, opens the consideration of the entire issue of a power vacuum that we considered earlier.

Thus the questions pour forth. If we have done our job well, those questions will challenge the preconceptions of every participant in the discussion. If we have succeeded, each of those participants will demand to know where to find an answer to their new dilemma of how to respond to Iraq and its rivals in the Persian Gulf area.

If we succeed, we shall also have created a dilemma for ourselves: how shall we answer the questions we have taught our students to ask? This is one dilemma we can finesse. We can teach our students to answer their own questions, just as they must when they become full-fledged citizens. We can teach them how to use specific history to discover patterns of thought and behavior upon which they can base their predictions of the likely consequences of U.S. policy. (See Part II, Social Education, September 1993.)

1Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., drawing on his experience as both historian and government official, has commented: "However hard it may be to define with precision the role of history in public policy, it is evident that this role must stand or fall on the success of history as a means of prediction-on the proposition that knowledge of yesterday provides guidance for tomorrow." Arthur M. Schlesinger, "The Inscrutability of History," in The Vital Past: Writings on the Use of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985).2Not all possible options are open to use in a given situation. Historical constraints, values constraints, and capability constraints all serve to restrict the choices open to us. Within the limits of those constraints, however, we can and do make rational choices.3Most students will resist any attempt to undermine their current, satisfactory assumptions. Teachers must be subtle in their moves toward this objective. To the extent that we create a classroom environment in which students come to question their own preconceptions, we can circumvent this innate resistance. In such a learning climate, they-not we-will do the undermining.References
Adler, Selig. The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth-Century Reaction. New York: Free Press, 1966.Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.Butterfield, Herbert. "The Dangers of History." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Elton, G. R. The Practice of History. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins Sons, 1967.Fischer, David Hackett. Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.Gaddis, John Lewis. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Halle, Louis J. The Cold War as History. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.Howard, Michael. The Causes of Wars and Other Essays. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983._____. The Lessons of History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.Jervis, Robert. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987.Kent, George O. "Clio the Tyrant: Historical Analogies and the Meaning of History." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Lichtman, Allan J., and Valerie French. "Past and Present: History and Contemporary Analysis." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.May, Ernest. "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.Perkin, Harold. "The Uses of History." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Pratt, David. "The Functions of Teaching History." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. "The Inscrutability of History." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Seaman, L. C. B. From Vienna to Versailles. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.Stephens, Lester D. "Lessons, Analogies and Prediction." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Taylor, A. J. P. The Origins of the Second World War. 2d ed. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1961.Trask, David F. "A Reflection on Historians and Policy Makers." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.Vaughn, Stephen. "History: Is It Relevant." In The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, edited by Stephen Vaughn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.John C. Wilson is a retired teacher of history and social studies. He taught at the secondary level in several public schools in western New York State.