11 Lessons From 21st-Century U.S. History

There’s more to history than names and dates.

December 16, 2021

We can’t change history, but we can learn from it.

As a rule, professional historians are loath to draw explicit lessons from the past. We leave that to popularizers and to figures like Lord Acton or George Santayana or Ariel and William Durant. Or to the phrase maker who said, “We study the past to understand the present; we understand the present to guide the future.”

After all, isn’t it the case that the so-called lessons of history are too enigmatic or ambiguous to be of use? I suspect most academic historians would agree with Hegel that since history is embedded in highly unique circumstances and contexts, generalizing is futile.

But isn’t one of the primary reasons for studying the past to learn from past mistakes, reflect upon human nature and lay bare long-term developments that otherwise go unnoticed?

As my fall semester draws to a close, I nevertheless felt it important to try to draw certain lessons from the recent past, the history of our current century. Here are 11 lessons I shared with my students, not as pronouncements, but as provocations that we could discuss.

Lesson 1: It can happen here.

A pandemic. A deep recession. A terrorist attack or a hurricane killing thousands. A disputed presidential election. And, most remarkable of all, despite its history of slavery, Jim Crow, de facto segregation and entrenched systemic racial inequalities, the United States elected its first Black president, who succeeded in enacting the nation’s first system of universal health care.

If the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Black swan events occur with surprising frequency, whether it’s three 500-year floods in Houston in the span of just three years, the wholly unexpected global financial crisis of 2008 or the pandemic.

Lesson 2: Truth is often indeterminate.

The disputed presidential vote in Florida in 2000 revealed an inconvenient truth: that even with paper ballots, the actual vote count remained unclear. According to the official record, a mere 537 votes separated Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. But whether that figure was correct is unknown.

How should a ballot with a hanging chad be interpreted? Did Broward County’s notorious “butterfly” ballot sway the election outcome and shroud voters’ actual intentions?

There are many lessons we might take away from the 2000 election: that every vote counts. That when elections are extremely close, we can never be 100 percent sure of the true outcome. That the longer uncertainty goes on, the angrier and more distrustful the public becomes. That voting technologies, ballot design and rules about voter registration all can influence election results.

Then there’s the biggest lesson of all: democracy depends upon a willingness to accept the finality of an election’s outcome, but partisans are increasingly unwilling to do that. Our democratic system rests on the willingness of politicians and their allies to put country above party and the collective good above narrow self-interest and partisan advantage. But that bedrock assumption has been thrown into question in an environment that prizes victory above all.

In other words, for representative government to function effectively, we need finality, transparency, quick results and a willingness to accept an election’s legitimacy.

Lesson 3: The outcome of elections matters.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Alabama governor George C. Wallace likened the two major parties to “Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum,” and reportedly said that “There ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.”

However, this isn’t true. The parties have, historically, differed enormously in their principles, programs and socioeconomic and ethnocultural composition. Without a doubt, a President Gore would have acted very differently from President Bush.

Lesson 4: The lessons of Sept. 11.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks represented the biggest failure of the United States’ system of intelligence and national security since Pearl Harbor. Yet no one resigned. No one accepted responsibility. No one was held accountable. It was as if the Sept. 11 attacks were acts of God.

To be sure, the country responded by creating a Department of Homeland Security and expanding the powers of the National Security Agency. Above all, the country decided to wage a global war on terror, which morphed into a drive to reshape the Middle East. It engaged in regime change and nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq, at enormous human and economic cost and without much success.

So what, then, are the lessons of Sept. 11? Some are simple: that the United States is not invincible. That countries that engage in acts of torture and prisoner abuse in “black sites” and “dark prisons” inevitably lose the moral standing.

But other lessons are more profound: that Sept. 11 was a collective trauma, and the nation’s response was not dissimilar from how individuals react to trauma—with anxiety, fear, anger and a more negative view of the world.

Understandably, but incorrectly, the United States overresponded to a threat that could have been dealt with in other ways: for example, by pressing neighboring countries to pressure terrorist groups, or by attacking Al Qaeda with options other than a full-scale invasion—with economic sanctions, mobilizing political and ideological opposition, and targeted drone, air and cyberattacks, sabotage, and infiltration.

Lesson 5: Lessons from the war in Iraq.

The pretext for the American invasion of Afghanistan proved to be an illusion. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of intelligence officials and policy makers’ imagination.

How could intelligent people make such a mistake? Wishful thinking. Groupthink. A desire to please the White House. An easily manipulated public with a misguided trust in leaders who had their own agendas.

The lessons are many: intruders into a foreign land are likely to provoke a nationalist backlash. An invasion without an exit strategy is a recipe for protracted conflict. Policy mistakes (like disbanding the Iraqi army) can result in gains for adversaries (in this case, Iran). The biggest lesson: the public needs to think for itself and view the assurances of leaders and experts with critical skepticism.

Lesson 6: Lessons from Katrina.

The gravest damage to the Bush presidency came not from a lie or an error of judgment, but from incompetence, ineptitude and indifference to tragedy epitomized by the bungled, botched, wholly inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina was a wholly predictable disaster. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals evacuated dogs and cats as soon as the storm warnings came. The city did not evacuate humans.

In New Orleans we saw how rapidly social order can break down, how a president’s hands-off management style resulted in a lack of oversight and accountability, and how tragedy falls hardest on the most vulnerable.

Lesson 7: Lessons from the Great Recession

With 8.8 million jobs lost, eight million homes foreclosed, unemployment spiking to 10 percent and $7.4 trillion in stock value lost, the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 was the U.S.’s worst economic decline since the Great Depression.

It should stand as a warning that we haven’t escaped the business cycle, that excessive financial complexity is dangerous, that it’s a mistake to assume that housing prices will always rise and that in a financial crisis, government must act quickly to provide liquidity and sustain economic demand.

Lesson 8: Fraudsters and con artists can perpetrate frauds with enormous economic consequences.

Enron, Bernard Madoff and Theranos should remind us that even seemingly safe investments can go sour. Be on the lookout for red flags. Be wary of the “smartest guys in the room” who make promises too good to be true or who lack a moral compass or who require exclusivity or demand secrecy or who have a strategy that you can’t understand or explain.

Lesson 9: Lessons from the 2016 presidential election

Some lessons are pretty obvious in retrospect—polling is not 100 percent reliable, and polls aren’t especially good at spotting late-breaking trends or measuring voters’ intensity or deciphering the public mood. We underestimate the margin of error at our peril.

Other lessons came as a bit of surprise: that election results generally are consistent with economic variables, including inflation and income growth; that demography isn’t destiny—growing ethnic and racial diversity didn’t guarantee a permanent Democratic majority; that trust in media, experts and elite opinion had fallen precipitously, especially among the white working class; and that rapid social changes, including globalization and rapid immigration, had produced a sizable backlash.

Lesson 10: Lessons from the pandemic.

History is littered with plagues and epidemics, and we have much to learn from this history. For one thing, responses to pandemics tend to unfold in a series of stages, beginning with denial and proceeding to blame and often to bitter social tensions. For another, ignorance, even among experts, is acute and disagreements about the proper course of action are intense. We still know little about the pandemic’s origins, the circumstances that produce super-spreader events and COVID’s long-term effects.

Other lessons are that quarantines—unless very rigorously enforced—are limited in their effectiveness and have many side effects; that some groups suffer much more than others, with a pandemic’s impact shaped by class and other variables; that pandemics often result in scapegoating; and that pandemics generally leave a lasting imprint on societies, though the long-term impact of COVID remains to be seen.

Despite the many strengths of American medicine, this country’s response to the pandemic was very uneven. Even as the health-care system and the pharmaceutical industry responded to the pandemic in ways that are truly extraordinary, many Americans were struck by the lack of a more imaginative and collaborative response to perhaps the biggest pandemic failure: the learning losses that took place in K-12 education. Why, I have asked, did public television—which used to be called educational television—fail to mobilize its immense resources to distribute high-quality educational programming targeting specific K-12 classes?

In a crisis, effective communication is essential, but during the pandemic, communication was confusing, inconsistent and ultimately highly politicized. I am sure future historians will ask why, after vaccines became available, the federal government failed to make effective use of a powerful tool to shape public opinion—public service announcements?

Let me conclude with one additional lesson:

Lesson 11: Learn to think critically about the information you encounter.

Skepticism and critical thinking have rarely been more essential than in today’s post-truth environment.

The term “post-truth,” the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year, has multiple meanings:

In a post-truth era, misinformation abounds, as does deceit, deception and disinformation. A popular postmodernism has taken hold that consists of questionable claims, misinformation, gut hunches and opinion, intuition and “common sense” masquerading as truth.

Post-truth, we’ve learned, isn’t confined to fringe elements. News organizations consciously or unconsciously skew public perceptions. Even scholars at times care more about influencing public opinion than about striving for objectivity, impartiality and a fair assessment of evidence.

Doubt and uncertainty have been weaponized, not just by politicians, but by corporations that have used half-truths, doubt and duplicity to defend asbestos, food additives, opioids, pesticides, silica, tobacco and other substances from legal attacks.

Logical fallacies, faulty analogies, cognitive biases, circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, false dilemmas, appeals to emotion—these are but some of the ways people’s thinking can be fooled, and that people fool themselves.

The solution is to teach students how to check facts, think critically, reason logically and assess information accurately. Today’s graduates should be able to interpret quantitative data and graphs and charts, distinguish between causation and correlation, and understand statistical significance and sampling errors. They should also understand how people perceive and (often inaccurately) assess risks, and how politicians cherry-pick statistics and use misleading or unrepresentative anecdotes.

In today’s society, naïveté is vulnerability. It is essential to arm oneself with critical thinking skills lest one be misled.

Each of the lessons I offer deserves far more elaboration than I can provide here. But I, for one, believe that history has a lot to teach us. I agree wholeheartedly with Hugh Blair, the 18th-century Scottish minister who wrote, “For wisdom is the great end of History. It is designed to supply the want of experience.”

History has been dismissed as bunk—a pack of tricks the living play on the dead, a “register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” But there is much to learn from history, and we, as teachers, are remiss if we do not try to distill its lessons or fail to encourage our students to reflect on the insights it can bestow.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Share Article


Back to Top