Still the One and Only School of Statesmanship

Still the One and Only School of Statesmanship

In Seeley’s mind, the thing that made history worthwhile as an academic discipline was its status as a source of education for decision-makers and others involved in the public realm. Seeley did much to ensure that the curriculum at Cambridge largely echoed his vision. Of course, while Seeley expressed it in an undoubtedly provocative fashion, his argument had a long lineage, with roots deep in antiquity. The idea that studying the past could help one to navigate the present, and respond to future challenges, was an old idea, one that went back to Thucydides and Polybius…

It is one of the more welcome developments within a troubled modern historical profession that some scholars are fighting to reassert this conception of history. After decades of ever-narrower specialisms and esoteric topics, a growing number of academics have been pushing back and making the case for historians’ engagement with policymakers — or what has been termed “applied history”…

What exactly is it about studying the past that makes history so useful? Thankfully, the answer to that question can be expressed in a single word: imagination….

A historical cast of mind opens up, and fertilizes, one’s imagination. It raises awareness of the primacy of contingency and possibility in human affairs. It underlines the importance of improvisation and outside-the-box thinking. It brings home, painfully, the need to develop a keen sense of limits. It helps us to grasp the consequences of getting decisions wrong. It serves to illuminate pathways through dense forests. And, yes, it offers inspiration from past examples….

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