Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Factors of Change in Modern Europe: A Practical Way to Teach Contemporary History

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Factors of Change in Modern Europe: A Practical Way to Teach Contemporary History

Article excerpt

A Note on the Problem of 'Contemporary History'

The Concise OED informs us that 'history' is "the study of past events; a continuous ... record of past events or trends." and reminds us that it originates from the Greek for 'learned, wise man.' The same dictionary defines 'chaos' as "the property of a complex system whose behavior is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions." Looking at the behavior of a geographic region that is still in the process of change, such as Europe from 1945 to the present, it is hard to avoid the thought that the second definition fits better than the first. It is only after an historic transformation has occurred (or failed to occur) that an historian is able to sift through the complexities of the system (discarding all the ideas not adopted, the revolutionary changes which failed to secure a place, the popular leaders who lost their popularity, and 99.9% of known events) and construct a continuous record of the past--a history. For participants, or even current observers, events present a chaotic appearance.

At the same time, we cannot afford to wait until History judges events and presents its conclusions if we are participating in those events, or will be affected by the outcomes. As participants, we hold within our grasp the power to make 'small changes in conditions' which could affect the end results, which could change history. But in a truly chaotic system, our actions could equally affect the end results in a way contrary to our hopes and needs.

This moves us out of the realm of historians and into the realm of current practitioners economists, political scientists and politicians, diplomats, investors, military officers, businessmen--who strive not to fully understand the system (which they recognized as impossible) but to reduce uncertainty, to gain enough of a handle on the problem that their strategies, their best guesses, their 'small changes in conditions' have a 'better than even' chance of influencing the system in the direction of their hopes and biases. Economists hope that eliminating this tariff or adding that tax will move the economy toward growth; politicians hope that voicing this position in this way will boost their following; investors hope that they can guess which type of prospect holds a better chance of profit. As a diplomat, I personally spent some twenty-five years trying to analyze events and write advice to my home government, or argue positions to my host government, in hopes of moving events to favor my country's interests. Businessmen and military officers hope that their actions will not be matched and countered by the actions of their competition. None of these people think that they can fully understand the system, but they try to reduce the complexity of the system by determining which elements are most important to their particular concerns. They resort to Traditional Factor Analysis. A 'factor', again according to the Concise OED, is "a circumstance, fact, or influence that contributes to a result." What all of these professionals do is formulate a list of factors which they believe, either from study of past history or from theory or from personal experience, constitute those that will be most important in contributing to the specific result they want to occur. Like the historian studying the past they ignore or discard the vast majority of facts and circumstances and try to get specific information about those few selected factors, then try to discern a trend looking for tipping points which they can affect or influence so that the end result is in accord with their interests. Theirs is the art of the possible. Recognizing that they are ignorant about the sweep of events, they try to isolate an eddy which is small enough to understand and to influence.

It is my belief that we, as teachers of history, should adopt a similar approach when we are asked to teach or study contemporary events. …

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