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The Dangers Of Historical Parallels

March 24, 2008

This is an addition to my informal, ongoing series: It Pays To Read The Business Section.

Here is an excellent Chicago Tribune article on the dangers of paralleling the Great Depression with today’s economic crisis. I particularly appreciated the following quote (bolds mine):

“I’ve been asked many times whether we will have another Great Depression,” said David M. Kennedy, a Stanford University history professor and the author of Freedom From Fear, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Depression and World War II. “My standard answer is that we won’t have that one again. I’d be surprised to have one of that seriousness and duration. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a catastrophe we haven’t seen before.”

While I’m a fan of exciting students’ interest in history by comparing the past with the present, I also studiously encourage caution. Presentism is a real danger in historical study. This article, however, by Michael Hiltzik of Tribune Newspapers, is both cautionary and useful. One need not find an exact correlation between past and present to bring a lesson forward.

By the way, has anyone read Freedom from Fear? What did you take away from the book? – TL

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3 Comments
  1. i think the fact that it is even remotely considered similar is enough to study the present and use that, as a springboard for discussion about the past.

    our government has too many fail safes for the depression to happen again… do you really think he's been asked that “many times”?

  2. What's the incentive for someone of Kennedy's status to lie or exaggerate? It seems likely that he's been asked many times. – TL

  3. No, no one's read the book. Alas.

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