A professor said today that we can't learn anything from history -- anything at all. This led to at least one doctoral student several tens of thousands of dollars into this process to question what exactly she was doing all this for.
"Because it's fun!" he said. There is some truth to this.
A lot of people think history has "lessons" to teach us, or act as if historians should be able to double as prophets. So you have fairly ridiculous spectacles like President Obama inviting a bunch of popular historians to the White House as if this will give him the lessons of history that are relevant to the rest of his presidency. Unfortunately for him, there has never been an Obama presidency before, and this is actually the first time 2013 has rolled around. I know, surprising huh? But it means that history does not have much to teach him.
More generally, on the popular level history is constantly being appropriated with extreme simplicity and forced to fit into modern boxes to bolster an argument or political point. In this sense it is true, we cannot learn anything from history. There are too many variables, too much contingency, for us to draw specific lessons that reveal the path forward. If we think lessons are there to be found we deny contingency and suddenly the lessons we could learn don't matter anyway because we've become determinists and what will be will be.
All that aside, I strongly disagree with my professor. I think there is much to be gained from a knowledge of history. To say that we cannot learn from history at all is something similar to saying that we as individuals are not shaped by our past experiences. History does not give us specific lessons, but I believe it can instill more subtle qualities -- humility, nuance, wisdom, perspective. More than that, history grounds us and gives us an identity. Without it we would be cast adrift, which is precisely why it remains so contentious and is fought over in the political domain. To say we do not learn from history is a bit like saying that my parents did not provide any guidance because they failed to give me written instructions for every conceivable life event.
Anyway, a random rant at the end of a long day. I love history.