Thursday, November 2, 2017


Pattern recognition, the fourth component of sound decision making, is why history is such an essential part of a liberal education—why, in the famous words of George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Pattern recognition refers to the ability to see the relevance of other nonidentical situations. It is inextricably linked with experience. A child can play wonderful chess at age seven or eight just by knowing the tactical techniques of chess and having an abundance of raw talent for the game. What takes the prodigy to the grandmaster level in his teens is his accumulated exposure to thousands of positions combined with the ability to see the similarities of those positions to the one he faces in the present game. Similarly, a young physician can be a technically proficient diagnostician the day he finishes his internship, but he cannot become a great diagnostician except by accumulating the experience that is the foundation of pattern recognition.

    Both of these examples illustrate how experience can be personal and vicarious. Personal experience is important, but the chess prodigy studies thousands of games played by the great players of the past to gain vicarious experience. The physician who wants to become a great diagnostician immerses himself in medical journals and texts long after medical school to build up his vicarious experience and thereby enhance his capacity for pattern recognition.

    In all of the great cultural, political, and economic issues of the day, the study of history is how we develop vicarious experience, and that’s why extensive study of history must be part of a liberal education. I do not mean one required survey course, but closer to half a dozen. The rewards of studying history are not abstract. The very creation of the United States is a case in point. The Founders did not imagine that they could make up a Constitution in a vacuum. They consciously undertook a study of democracies and republics from ancient Greece and Rome up through their own time, analyzing the reasons why each had collapsed. The mechanisms they devised—checks and balances, separation of powers, and the rest—were directly influenced by that analysis.

Charles Murray, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality 

 (Kindle Locations 1444-1459). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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