"Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.” -David Hume, 1777

"…we need to discern patterns in the past, so we can know what to generalize to the predicaments of the present." -Steven Pinker, 2011




1. Past experience is the primary indicator of future outcomes.

This is the basic premise of Bayes’ theorem of statistical probability, perhaps the foremost theorem in the field if statistics.

2. Major historical cultures, dynasties, and civilizations have followed a general pattern of growth, flowering, and decline throughout history.

Examples include two thousand years of Chinese imperial dynasties and every other former empire that has existed on the face of the Earth.

3. Humans manifest an instinct to exercise power over others.

Examples include the Babylonians, Persians, Athenians, and Romans of ancient times; the Aztec, Inca, Spanish, French, Dutch, and British empires of more recent times; and individuals including Ashoka, Qin Shi Huang Di, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Hernán Cortés, Napoleon, and Hitler.

4. Humans exhibit a propensity to fear, dislike, kill, subjugate, and discriminate against people from groups different than their own.

Examples from history include genocides, slavery, India's Caste system, South Africa's apartheid system, America's Jim Crow laws, and the examples cited in Item 3 above.

5. Humans manifest an instinct to resist external control.

Examples include Cleopatra in 31 BC, Jews in 66 AD, Joan of Arc in 1428, American colonists in 1776, Toussaint Louverture in 1791, Native Americans at the Little Big Horn River in 1876, Zulus at Mome Gorge, Natal in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Vietnamese people for the past thousand years.

6. Humans tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal.

Examples include Akhenaten’s attempt to replace the polytheistic religion of ancient Egypt with worship of a single god, the contrasting political systems of ancient Athens and Sparta, the French Revolution of the 18th Century, the U.S. Civil War of the 19th Century, and the present polarized condition of American politics and government.

7. Significant undertakings such as government actions tend to produce unintended consequences.

Examples include the 15th Century Ming Dynasty’s decision to dismantle the oceangoing fleet of Admiral Zheng He, which left ocean exploration to the Europeans, who sent Columbus on a mission to the spice-growing lands of Asia, which stumbled across America instead, which forever changed the world as humans know it.  And the 2003 U.S. government decision to overthrow the government of Iraq, an operation predicted to be "a slam dunk," now in its fourteenth year, that produced many American casualties, trillions of dollars in U.S. war debt, a brutal civil war between Sunnis and Shias, and the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS).

The Question:

Are students more likely to understand, retain, and benefit from historical knowledge if individual historical events such as those listed above are learned in meaningless isolation or if they are learned in the context of general principles that describe how the world works—principles that may be applied in the future to inform judgment in human affairs?

Additional examples of general principles of history:

8. Humans exhibit a propensity for violence and aggression.

9. Humans go to war out of honor, fear, and interest (Thucydides).

10. Powerful nations tend to prey on weaker nations.

11. Leaders try to get their way by appealing to the emotions of their followers.

12. Leaders tend to justify foreign attacks by claiming to be helping the people they attack.

13. Many or most military invasions of distant lands fail over the long term.

14. Major historical events usually result from multiple causes, some long term and some more immediate.

15. Increases in group security tend to require decreases in individual freedom, and vice versa.

16. Governmental actions tend to have winners and losers.

17. Complex modern economies tend to be inherently unstable.

18. People tend to promote their self-interest or the interest of their group, which causes their arguments to be biased.

19. Biased sources are all around us, so you can’t trust everything that you read or hear.  

20. A good way to approach the truth is to seek corroborating evidence from multiple sources.


General principles of historical knowledge are not hard and fast rules that always apply in the same way to similar situations. Rather, they are tendencies that humans would be wise to respect like the tendency of cigarettes to cause lung cancer or the tendency of a child to be struck by a car if she dashes into a busy street without looking both ways. History's general principles can likewise make us smarter when dealing with important matters encountered in life, including those with the potential to involve large-scale death and destruction.

© 2001-2017 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC