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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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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.

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.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jan 16, 2016 at 3:45 pm

What we learn from history is we don't teach history properly. An introductory survey should start with the present and work backward, tracing the lines of cause and effect that led up to the world we live in. Events make more sense from that perspective.

This is one of the many lessons I learned about the value of self education during my misspent time in Catholic grammar school. Even when the nuns nominally taught history, we never got past the Civil War. One day curiosity led me to find out how the textbook narrative came out, which was just following WWII (this was in the mid-fifties), and I recognized names that I was hearing in the news. Jeez, maybe that book had something relevant in it after all. I very profitably followed their stories back through time, encountering their antecedents and the backstories. Meeting the Civil War from the other direction, I found a much deeper appreciation of its significance, and continued backward reading brought its causes into sharp focus. I worked my way back to Columbus knowing what I wanted to learn and why. That reverse approach has worked well in other areas.

Another lesson: what's in a name. The "Battle of Cowpens" can't compete rhetorically with "The Battle of Bunker Hill." If Morgan had wanted to get into the history books he would have picked a battlefield with a more picturesque name.

Posted by Loren, a resident of Greater Miranda,
on Jan 18, 2016 at 4:38 am

Loren is a registered user.

Web Link

[[Blogger: This comment was solely a link to the top-level of Wikipedia. I do not know the commenter's intent.]]

Posted by Plane Speaker, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:46 pm

I've always thought they really need to create a kind of time
line that people can fill in as they learn history. Similar to
that chart that goes from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic
and shows the relative sizes of everything.

There are so many things in history, empires, wars, people,
civilizations, even geographical periods like ice ages, etc ...
the first thing they need to do is to orient people in time.

When was the solar system formed, when was the Earth
formed, when did life first show up, when did we first
show up, when was the first city, writing, tools, metal,
etc ... then once you have that you are self-reinforcing
on filing away new information you get because it makes
sense and relates to other stuff you already know.

it might also help us to realize that we don't know everything,
or just how damn little we really know. Think about 100
years ago and how little we knew, yet we acted like we
knew everything. And soon after we knew enough to tell
people to smoke, and drink, and women to feed formula
to their babies ... when we did not even know what to look
for in mother's milk to put in it. Putting sugar and chemicals
in everything, and now people are starting get sick and we
are still actively trying to push it on the rest of the world.

And in another 100 years we will look back and think people
were just as stupid. We always think so hard about finding
things to do but hardly take any time to think if we should do
them. Think of the waste of WWII over some people getting
crazy ideas about how superior their were.

Posted by Plane Speaker, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:51 pm

Well, there is what George Orwell said about history,
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

You know darn well that if history was necessary for people to do their jobs and make things
everyone would know it, but as it is it is only necessary for citizens to understand and vote
their interests ... and that is threatening to those who control the present.

We mostly get cartoons and then programming around the cartoons that makes it look like
people take the cartoons seriously.

Posted by Plane Speaker, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:58 pm

If we spent as much time showing and explaining history as we do
showing garbage on TV to people we'd have a nation of history
scholars, and scholars on just about everything else.

If the main point of American is freedom, and the main freedom is
just a justification for people to feel free to be stupid, what is the
point exactly.

We used to have the FDR's four freedoms:
the freedom of speech and expression,
the freedom to worship God in his own way,
freedom from want and
freedom from fear.

Now we have the freedom to destroy our health.
The freedom to be stupid
The freedom to quit a job and starve if we are being exploited
The freedom to smile and pretend everything's fine.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 19, 2016 at 5:15 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "You know darn well that if history was necessary for people to do their jobs and make things
everyone would know it, but as it is it is only necessary for citizens to understand and vote
their interests"

This is a common misconception. My experience is that most people coming out of college and Master's programs wildly overestimate how much control they have over situations because most of their learning experiences have been designed to impart specific knowledge and skills. And the duration of those assignments mean they rarely have to deal with everyday problems, such as the goals changing midway or inheriting someone else's mistakes.

In those cases where it is properly taught, history imparts a sense of chaos, decision-making with information that is sparse, uncertain and inaccurate. While it may be the case that "Luck favors the prepared", that is only a tendency and many who have been well-prepared have been done in by bad luck. Similarly it teaches that there often aren't good solutions, only "lesser evils" and you may not even be able to optimize that.

There has long been substantial cross-fertilization between the military and commercial spheres in management, training ... with many of the advances originating with the military (strong motivation to innovate). Those disciplines focus on teaching the state-of-the-art. Understanding the evolution of those disciplines can prime practitioners to seeing the next step.

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jan 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm

" Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it " -Santayana

That quote is part of my SIG collection. I have seen this idea in action.

" Think of it as Evolution in Action " -Niven Also applied to CHANGE.

The one thing of note: The complaint often given " The Rebels DIDN'T FIGHT FAIR! " This was because of the above example using ground coverage and retreats " Wasn't standing up and fighting fair " to the British Command.

In Africa, many tribes waged war by massive attacks of fighting warriors on each other.
When they tried the same tactic on those " white devils " they found out what a Gatling Gun their " Wars " and were massacred to the last man standing.

Back in the Europe Theater of Operations: A War based on Battleships was coming to an end. The age of Aircraft and Flattops was beginning.

That War ended by a New War: The Atomic Age of Warfare. The fast buildup to create MAD. " Duck and Cover and kiss your --- good bye " was what we lived with in school. The Cold War started. SAC was our " Peacekeeper " with reference to the gun that made the west.

Than it was MY TURN: We pledged not to explode as many test bombs...So we did the next best thing; we " exploded " our test bombs inside Cray Supercomputers, with testing to make sure our calculations were based on reality.

Why is it the military and Secret Agencies get the BEST New equipment and Big Business get the New equipment later?

That scenario can be seen best while watching the beginning of " 2001 ". " The tribe that kills better survives ".
We have gone from this to the A-10, the best CAS Weapon ever built. Armed with a modern day Gatling Gun as it's best weapon.




If you want the management change that destroyed Cray Research, I will post them in another comment, as this one is long enough.


Posted by Where Will It All End?, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 20, 2016 at 2:46 pm

"If you want the management change that destroyed Cray Research, I will post them in another comment, as this one is long enough."

No need. Monolithic Cray machines went obsolete when Unixheads learned to tie multiple PCs into supercomputing clusters, called Clusters, which quickly got obsoleted by massive parallelism based on cheap graphical processing units (GPUs) ganged in groups of thousands.

"with many of the advances originating with the military (strong motivation to innovate)."

(not to mention seriously deep pockets).

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 20, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Where Will It All End?"

> "...Monolithic Cray machines went obsolete..."
This misses the point of the comment by "the_punnisher" and of this blog entry. Cray was offered as an illustrative example of a situation much more general that its specific product. For example, we don't dismiss the lesson of the original "Pyrrhic Victory" because spears are not the modern weapon-of-choice.

> "...(not to mention seriously deep pockets)"
Historical aside: The deep-pocketed state-funded military is a relatively recent development. Until WW2, the US went into wars with a badly underfunded and badly prepared military. Throughout most of history, being part of the economic/political elite meant sponsoring/leading military forces (feudalism, clans,...). This was slowly phased out with the rise of nationalism from the Napoleonic era. However, throughout this transition you repeatedly encounter cases of military defeats and disasters because the generals were appointed for being part of that elite without regard to military qualifications.

Example: Napoleon's innovations in logistics and in managing large dispersed organizations were not the result of having "deep pockets" to fund R&D, but rather the need/advantage of having an army so large it couldn't be managed and supplied as a single organization.

Posted by Where Will It All End?, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 20, 2016 at 11:00 pm

"However, throughout this transition you repeatedly encounter cases of military defeats and disasters because the generals were appointed for being part of that elite without regard to military qualifications."

Like England before and in WWI. I cannot recall which German general observed that the Tommies fought like lions but, fortunately for him, they were led by donkeys.

Posted by Plane Speaker, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 21, 2016 at 5:49 am

The Cray processor was optimized for its physical form factor and did
not scale down economically to the size of the Intel processor, and if it had it
still would not have been cheap enough to have a economic advantage.
Seymour Cray went off the try to design faster processors, and amazingly,
since his whole intellect was geared towards design of systems that
he did not foresee the closing off of that technology, at least as a
big moneymaker. The commodity Intel processor took down company
after company until it even crept into Apples machines which are in
no means supercomputers ... though current Apple machines are
faster, more powerful and have more memory than either of the Cray
machines that resided at Apple.

Cray did pursue massively parallel systems with the Cray T3D in 1993,
but at that point it was software and commodity hardware that mades
the difference.

They were certainly not obsolete because they were monolithic,
all the newest fastest machines are monolithic save the distributed
organizations of processors linked on the net, and those were not
general purpose, which was the original point of the Cray 1.

Boy it's fun to listen to people talk about stuff they really are not
that informed on! ;-)


Douglas Moran:
>>This is a common misconception.

You did not even come close to addressing my point before dismissing
it with your proclamation. Is that somehow written into you bloggers'
contracts that you must do that?

The point is that for most and a growing number of jobs history, and
anything along those lines are not necessary and even a liability for
the kind of poltical structure we have. The point has been proven
over and over that American schools exist mostly to keep kids out
of trouble and for most towns and cities break their spirit so that
they will not be able to cause problems.

In his brilliant but dark commentary on tecnoology, "The Future
Doesn't Need Us Anymore" Bill Joy talked about how must knowledge
and technology is out there and how it can be considered a liability
to have a populace with too much information.

Sadly though we have the opposite now and we swung over to
the other side to where mass mobs are raising Donald Trump to
political office.

Education without context is a problem. If we needed education,
particularly history so bad why are we importing so much labor
from South of the Border.

Posted by An Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jan 21, 2016 at 1:01 pm

"Boy it's fun to listen to people talk about stuff they really are not
that informed on! ;-)"

I think it's painful.

My first encounter with a Cray-branded machine was a Cray 1 running LTSS. It's in a museum now. Before that it was various CDC 6X00 and Cyber variants, afterward a bevy of later Crays. They came fast. All good machines.

Do not mistake monolithic cabinets (or even ganged cabinets) for monolithic CPU architecture. Today's Cray has the multi-Intel religion. As always, the limitations are the speed of light, heat, and the parallelizability of a given problem, not to mention the programmers' skill at parallelizing it.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 21, 2016 at 3:06 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Plane Speaker"
> Douglas Moran: > "This is a common misconception."
> Plane Speaker: "You did not even come close to addressing my point before dismissing it with your proclamation. Is that somehow written into you bloggers' contracts that you must do that?"

Your point, which I quoted in my response of Jan 19, 2016 at 5:15 am, what that history was only necessary for voting, not for doing one's job. That response was to disagree with that. Additionally, my response was not a "proclamation", but three paragraphs of explanation of my point of view. Using these two serious misrepresentations of what I said to attack my conduct are enough of a violation of the rules for conduct to warrant having this comment edited or deleted. I am leaving it as an example of moderation policy.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 21, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "Boy it's fun to listen to people talk about stuff they really are not that informed on!" (two previous comments)

The original mention of the problems at Cray Research were so brief that one should even infer that they knew what exactly the commenter was referring to, much less whether he was well-informed about that situation.

Posted by Where Will It All End?, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 21, 2016 at 3:31 pm

"The original mention of the problems at Cray Research were so brief that one should even infer that they knew what exactly the commenter was referring to ..."

Forget it Doug. It's blogotown.

Posted by Noel82, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 28, 2016 at 7:39 pm

Somewhere in the midst of reading the comments, a mention about schools and education triggered a thought about what schools do and don't do. Generalizing, it struck me schools provide exercises which test how well we remember things to do well on tests. However, when the oft heard statement suggests the reason for schools is to prepare them for ... your choice ... for life, for existing after school, being able to deal with real world situations? But wait, I don't recall schools teaching or testing on stuff like that. Does this have anything to do with why some kids begin to worry about the unknowns that await them. If our schools, which do great following rules and plans, aren't preparing to cope with those "unknowns" .... are the parents capable of filling that void? To me this is more interesting to examine than the topics resulting from not understanding and wandering away from the original focus point .... Aargh, I'm guilty also. Mea Culpa x 3.

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