How history should be taught: Connections to the present | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

How history should be taught: Connections to the present

Uploaded: Jan 16, 2016

The admonition "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it" (many variations) is ignored in the traditional teaching of history--teaching that focuses on "facts" and ignores the larger lessons and connections to the present. The Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina (17 January 1781) was one of the most important battles of the American Revolution, but is often overlooked because it was small and peripheral to the "brand name" armies. The battle itself is an example of inspired management and planning and I often use as analogy because it is so visual, and hence memorable. And understanding why the battle was so significant provides a hook into a barely taught aspect of the Revolution that has many analogies to the current wars in the Middle East (and the Vietnam War before that and ...).(foot#1)

The basic management lesson is to plan for what was likely to happen, rather than what one would decides "should" happen. And then to try to "turn lemons into lemonade". Although the Rebel ("Patriot" or "American") forces outnumbered the Loyalist forces (colonists and British regular army), the latter were experienced soldiers, and many of the former were inexperienced militia. Such militias lacked the training and confidence to withstand a determined charge by experienced soldiers. However, more than five years into the war, many Rebel commanders had still not learned that lesson: They would place militia in key positions, and when the militia predictably ran away, the whole of the army would collapse, partly from panic being contagious and partly from the militia's retreat undermining the whole of the Rebel army position.

I expect many of you readers have experienced this in one of your jobs: Management decides on a goal without adequate consideration of whether there are resources to achieve it, and ignores warnings and protests from below.(foot#2) Often the command "It is up to you to figure out how to get this done on schedule" filters down through multiple levels of management. To keep their jobs, workers put in uncompensated time, take dangerous and unethical shortcuts ... Even when the failures can't be covered up, the (ir)responsible management attempts "plausible deniability".

In politics at all levels--from the local to national--politicians, advocates and bureaucrats routinely complain about, and disparage, the "low-information" voter or citizen, by which they mean the broad mass of people who haven't dedicated their lives to becoming expert on the few issues of most important to the complainer. My experience has been that it is largely futile to try to get them to adapt to the available mind-share of the intended audience.

Back to Cowpens. Rebel General Morgan not only took the limitations of the militia into account, but turned it into an advantage. First, he calculated that the militia would have time to get off two volleys before running, so that is what he asked them to do: Shoot twice and run. Since the rest of the army knew that they were supposed to run, that avoided creating panic. Second, rather than that retreat weakening the Rebel position, it was arranged to do the opposite--it would induce the Loyalists to come against the strength of the Rebel army. The Loyalists moved forward under the false impression that they were pursuing an army that had collapsed, when in fact they were running into the guns of an experienced, well-organized defensive position. Third, since the militia retreat was not one of panic, but calculation, they were still an effective military unit, having confidence in Morgan's plan. Once they were out of sight, they briefly paused to regroup, moved to the other side of the battlefield and attacked where the Loyalists would be vulnerable. The shock of their return resulted in the collapse of the Loyalist army, with only a few escaping.(foot#3) Notice that by having the militia go against the weakness of the Loyalists, he had again set them up to succeed. Aside: Morgan's plan had additional clever aspects, but this is enough for my purposes here.

An important part of the success of the Rebel plan was an accurate assessment of the Loyalist commander, the 27 year-old Tarleton. The plan anticipated that he would be his usual arrogant, impatient, impulsive self. In contrast, Tarleton badly underestimated the Rebels, even though he knew that Daniel Morgan had proven himself to be one of their very best commanders. Tarleton also failed to "take care of his people", unnecessarily pushing his soldiers into battle tired, hungry and not properly organized.

----The bigger picture----
The Carolinas and Georgia had strong Loyalist elements and the British dispatched a small army under Cornwallis to provide the local Loyalist militias with the additional muscle to take control away from the Rebels and to help them become strong enough to maintain control after the army left.(foot#4) If you have been following events in Afghanistan and Iraq, this should sound very familiar.

After Cowpens, although Cornwallis' army was still a strong force, it had been deprived of crucial units that were needed for it to be able to move and fight effectively. Cornwallis retreated to the coast, and then to Yorktown in Virginia. Traditional accounts of this history will then focus on the Battle of Yorktown, and how Cornwallis' surrender effectively ended the war.

The departure of Cornwallis' army gave the Rebels a free hand to reverse the Loyalist gains throughout the southern colonies. What gets ignored in traditional history books is that throughout all the colonies the Rebels had been establishing control--town by town and county by county--by a combination of suppressing and expelling Loyalists.(foot#5) Early in the war, the British army had been able to easily seize and hold almost any coastal city (Boston was a special case), and march through much of the countryside, pushing aside Rebel resistance. Such excursions became more difficult, dangerous and expensive as they lost control of that countryside, and the British became increasingly confined to a few coastal enclaves (analogous to what the US military now terms "Forward Operating Bases"). Yorktown was the final straw because it demonstrated that the British army could no longer depend on resupply, reinforcement and evacuation from the sea--fortuitous timing and tactics had allowed the French navy to keep the British navy from reaching Yorktown.

----The conundrum of connections to current events----
Today, if you look at ISIS (alt: ISIL or Daesh), it is not simply a terrorist group: You see multiple levels/intensities of action, from propagandists and other political agitators, to terrorists, guerrillas, militias, conventional military units and a government running a large territory. Much of the terminology and theoretical structure about this is based on the writings of Mao Zedong (formerly: Tse-tung) and on other analyses of the Chinese Communist revolution. However, there is recognition that this multi-modal form of warfare goes back much earlier, with the American Revolution routinely cited as one of the earliest good examples (As a teenager, Mao was a fan of George Washington and the American Revolution).(foot#6)

An important use of historical event is to abstract away from the partisan controversies of current events, allowing one to focus on the factual and analytic controversies. Such examples also provide a jump-start by providing a structure for these discussions, including reminders of aspects that someone starting from scratch might miss. The problem is that the writing and teaching of history tends to avoid making these connections. Partly it is that those authors and teachers seek to avoid being sucked into the partisan controversies, but mostly it is that they are more interested in the history itself. While the authors may briefly mention the connections while on tour to promote interest in their books, you typically find little, if any, of that in the books themselves.

An impediment to making these types of connections is timing. Most people take history courses up through the first or second year of college (notice that I said "take", not "learn"). Typically they don't have enough knowledge and interest in current events to easily spot the connections on their own, and are too busy to have time to reflect on matters that "aren't on the test". Similarly analogies to generic organizational behavior are outside their experience, and the curriculum. Those teaching history have related constraints, especially in an environment where even slight skepticism is open to be interpreted as partisanship, if not heresy.

But without a connection to "real life", history comes off as nothing more than a variant of Trivial Pursuits, or something that when it can't be avoided to be limited to what is needed to pass an upcoming test.

You may notice that I have not tried to present here specific links from this battle to the present. This is not cowardice, but rather an awareness that such would result in the comment section being swamped with partisan rancor over peripheral matters and details.

Social media has had a huge negative impact on parents educating their children about the world of work. Back when there was little danger of minor revelations reaching the wrong people, adult conversations about problems at work often didn't exclude the children, and some parents actively involved their children (most famously Bill Gates III).(foot#7) Faced with the difficulty of "anonymizing" these lessons, many parents are talking only in vague generalities, but these lack the impact and memorability of created by examples. Historical events provide a potential proxy, but once again the problem is timing and knowledge: The parent needs to know enough about what the student is being taught (content and timing) to make it relevant.

I don't have any solutions or even good advice. In the comments, I would appreciate readers sharing with others their experiences--successful, failed, and middling--dealing with this conundrum.

----Footnotes----
1.The shortcomings of many Rebel commanders were passed down from the British army. Too many generals on both sides were unable or unwilling to adapt the recipes for European battlefields to the colonies. A modern analogy is when an athletic team gets a new coach who decides that rather than adapting his playbook to the strengths and weakness of the team that it is up to the players to adapt to his playbook.

2.There have been various studies in Management Science and Organizational Psychology that have found that over-confident people are much more likely to get promoted, and realists are likely to languish. The speculation is that over-confidence is confused (conflated?) with attributes that are legitimately desirable, for example, enthusiasm, commitment.
A classic (pre-Dilbert) piece of humor about this is Information Flow in the Software Industry, at the end of which I provide a link to a real-world example from a computer manufacturer (SGI - Silicon Graphics Inc).

3.The Loyalist commander Tarleton was one of the few to escape, yet another example of an elite avoiding the disaster it created, in this case, Tarleton benefited from his position--behind the lines--and special resources--a fast, strong horse.

4.The initial British campaign had been highly successful, in large part because the Rebel general, Horatio Gates, was incompetent. He was politically well-connected and had aggrandized himself by taking credit for the work of other commanders at the Battle of Saratoga (the legend is that during key battles he was passed out drunk at his headquarters many of miles away). One of those commanders was Morgan who had subsequently resigned in frustration but was persuaded to come back to help deal with this crisis. Aside: Another was Benedict Arnold who defected after a greater series of disappointments, insults and abuses by a Continental Congress that valued connections over competence. Arnold is remembered as a traitor, but before that he was many times the hero.
Gates had been replaced because he lost a battle--at Camden in South Carolina (16 August 1780)--where he too had failed to "take care of his people". Although he had a 2-to-1 superiority on paper, roughly half his soldiers were sick or otherwise indisposed.

5.These skirmishes were typically so small and numerous that you won't find them in any major history book, with the major exception being the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina (7 October 1780) where the Rebel militia decisively beat the Loyalist militia.

6.The Spanish War of Independence against Napoleonic France is another significant early example, but is not well-known in the US. This war was intertwined with Britain's Peninsula War against France, and the two are often conflated.

7.The chilling effect of social media can be seen by its being the inspiration for an episode of the animated TV series The Simpsons ("The Girl Code", Season 27, Episode 10, 3 January 2016). Homer gets fired from his job at the nuclear power plant when his wife Marge posts photo with a dripping ice cream cone with the word "meltdown" in the caption.

----Boilerplate----
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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