The End of History? Never!


As Two Ships Passing in the Night: 

The History of American State and Local Government


The Value of History

Let’s simply make a statement that there are many who question the usefulness of history as a guide or source of insight into the present day–or to one’s decisions. There are many reasons for this, and the obvious correctness that history belongs to the winners and is not without its biases and limitations suggest that history is not a perfect guide. I will not defend history as a perfect and exclusive lens thru which policy should be made. But it is reasonable to suggest that its endurance over 2500 since the first history was published (Thucydides), history has been a primary (but not exclusive) tool in policy-making.

It is only in the last decade, and perhaps a new generation have come to believe we live in a new world, for which the experiences and legacies of the old world do not apply. Science, data-driven analysis and algorithms define the future. The future brings inevitable progress. History no longer repeats itself, and it probably never “rhymed”. History is no longer part of the common core of universities, and major universities are depopulating their history offerings. K-12 history suffered that fate for almost a generation. History, some say, is dead.

OK. The world is always what it is–and certainly this history is out-of-step with it–but permit me my feeble efforts to disrupt the contemporary paradigm.

I offer three simple, brief and hopefully intuitive reasons why it is worth your time to delve into the case studies and history of your profession and policy area.

First, someone said this–and I am too lazy to try to find out who (some say William Faulkner)– “History is not dead; it is not even past”. We still vote in 2018 the way we shot in 1861. The past, like it or not, still lives in each of us. How we were raised, the prism by which we select and define our experiences and acquired knowledge, and the heritage of a past long-forgotten that has been built into our economic, social and political structures and behaviors, is very real. Our political, social and economic structures remember their history–but they cannot speak for themselves. Our cities and states are each different from others–in their own way, and style. Try doing the same job in economic development in another state–even city in the same state–things are done differently, and goals and power-balances shift. That is why knowing history is critical to being successful today. You can better understand why things are different and you can adjust to fit the new circumstances. 

Second, as Socrates observed in his “Cave” metaphor, our senses (including memory) deceive us. Time distorts our understanding of the past–daily experiences, as Barbara Streisand sang, quickly become memories, and are brought to bear on the new problems of the next day. Life’s lessons learned, and remembered, are individual. We each go through life, especially our professional lives, alone. I am alone as I write his history. You are alone as you do you daily tasks. We are each like a combat soldier in the midst of battle. He sees what he sees–but only what he sees. Emotion and fear is extreme. What he cannot deal with, he changes or represses. What he sees is only part of the battle. The soldier a mile away tells a different tale. Each scar in our lives is a memory. And memory is a poor decision-maker.

History for all its deficiencies, if done responsibly, sans to the extent possible of ideology and partisanship, reconstructs the “big picture”, the sum of individual experiences, and puts that event or time in context–and relates it to the past and to the future. The individual soldier, the solitary isolated professional, can see where she fits into the big picture. Better still, history offers a legitimate use of hindsight. We know what lies ahead. We can mute the noise, remove clutter, and isolate on the relevant. None of these can be done in our day-to- day experiences. Knowledge of our history alerts us to the fundamentals of our profession and policy area–things that are constant, things that really matter. If nothing else, history teaches humility and hopefully tempers our ego, and makes us question our facts. We are a better decision-maker, and maybe even a better person.

Third, and finally, combining the first and second observations, knowing history makes us larger than our own life, our limited knowledge, perspective and experiences. History is a valuable, I argue necessary, component of something many call “judgement”. Judgement is defined as “the ability to make considered decisions, or come to sensible conclusion”. I argue history encourages understanding the context of the decisions we make, help us define compromise or teaches us when compromise no longer works, helps us to better understand the long-term and the dangers and pitfalls of short-term. In one way or another, a professional makes decisions–judgement is what history builds. I may be naive, but judgement improves our decisions.

Our history, composed of case studies of critical decisions (we call them modules) provides enough detail of the context inherent in the definition and implementation of an economic development decision/program/strategy. Our history is a casebook of economic development decisions made over 250 years. It could be shorter, or smushed into a pablum paragraph, but it is not.

Joseph Ellis best expressed my goal in writing this history. “Our goal is to learn more about our origins in the fond hope that doing so will allow us to frame the salient questions of our time with greater wisdom than we are currently able to muster on our own” (American Dialogue: the Founders and Us, 2018).



 So Here’s what you can expect from “taking this course”, “As Two Ships”, on the evolution of American ED.

  • Each major topic area, in this case the 19th Century, is composed of several, many modules. Themes and modules can be accessed by clicking on them.
  • The 19th Century will later be followed by several 20th Century Themes and modules—every three months or so. The 21st Century will be there as well, but we have a special feature for current history. Periodically, apart from the AS TWO SHIPS history, we will release a “beta” version of a history of a major city or a state. Readers are invited to comment or email, correct mistakes, suggest sources, etc. Like Wikipedia, as appropriate/in our sole discretion, feedback will be integrated into a final online article.
  • Themes and modules build on each other, BUT, if you choose to ignore some and select another, each module and Topic Area is more or less self-contained. You should read the introduction to each Theme, however. Please keep in mind the Conceptual Framework (Our Chapter One Model) is the skeleton that holds up each Theme and module. Its concepts are cornerstone to the actual history. Be prepared to check things out in Theme 1 where the Conceptual Framework is presented.
  • Look for examples of our model or conceptual framework at work. I try to point it out, but sometimes, I leave it to the reader to find. The conceptual framework is like a clothes hanger, it helps you figure out what is going on, and keeps things organized. Could you have watched Game of Thrones without understanding the dynasties?