“History teaches that history teaches us nothing “- Hegel

28 12 2008

I previously mentioned the MIT video with Henry Mintzberg and Ricardo Semler discussing the value and future of MBA and management teaching. Semler makes the point, “How is it possible to teach for the future (of management) when we only have a poor understanding of the past?”

Semler is pointing out that Management as a science is not as proven and strong as it might be. The poor assessment of the past (albeit interpreted retrospectively) makes interpretation of management action and reaction difficult and necessarily brings into question the teaching of future managers.

Importantly, this is not to devalue or criticise established thinking on Management practice merely point out that it doesn’t appear to be working as well as we are all hoping it would. (insert appropriate example- Mintzberg rather drew a bead on President Bush…)

tay-bridgeNow, coming from a different paradigm I am actually used to things not be quite as we are taught but not throwing my hands up and rejecting everything. Up to the early 1980’s no-one seriously believed that a bacterium could live in extreme acid environment of the human stomach. Now, it is recognised that not only does H pylori exist but thrives in pH =1 and that, contrary to established knowledge, it  is the principal cause of  gastric ulcers and gastric malignancies. Moving rapidly on from that new knowledge it has been found that by eradicating the bug from a stomach it might even cure those diseases within it. Medical science has recognised an error of knowledge, corrected it and progressed.

Management science must also make this sort of progress.

It strikes me that on a personal level this should be achieved thru’ the reflective and iterative processes of Action Research. Hegel of course is right as we seem to learn very little from history in a global sense. However history teaches us nothing only if we fail to observe the past, ask appropriate questions and learn from the results. Furthermore, if the answers we develop don’t work, we should ask the questions again and again testing our answers to see if we have made progress. It’s not rocket science really, is it?

What has history taught you?


edit- Bob C kindly sourced the full quote found ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’: “But what experience and history teach is this, – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” This can be read in context here.

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