I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether we’re seeing a deterioration in the value that we place in learning from the past. This New Yorker piece on the decline of historical thinking in particular struck me. The article features a study done by Northeastern University professor Benjamin M. Schmidt that showed that in spite of more students than ever attending college in the US, History has been declining over the past decade more rapidly than any other major. It now accounts for between 1-2% of batchelor degrees which represents a drop of about a third since 2011. A quick Google shows that there is a similar pattern in the UK.
More generally, and in an industry context, we seem to be increasingly captivated by the new and the novel and on speculation about the future. My hope is that this is not at the expense of the learning we get from historical contexts and examples, and also classic thinking and theory that should continue to underpin much of what we do. The optimist in me says not, but it does seem sometimes as if the industry is perhaps a little impatient about learning from the past when compared to the magpie-like pursuit of the shiny and new.
The past is such a powerful teacher. Classic theory and practice in any industry should be the foundation on which we layer new context. But in doing that we shouldn’t diminish the value of that past bank of knowledge and understanding. Because as this quote (from Helen Lewis, via Amelia Torode) points out ‘studying history completely reframes how you see the present’:
I hope we don’t forget this.