Thinking in Time

by Ernest R. May, Richard E. Neustadt

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Thinking In Time by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May is a critical analysis of how to use the ideas we have learned from history to interpret modern day situations and to guide our actions. It is essentially a practical application of the idea "If you don't remember history, you are doomed to repeat it". In this text, the two authors—both prominent history professors—examine a variety of historical events and interpret them both in historical contexts (to show how an understanding of history would have aided those scenarios) and in a modern context (to let these examples guide and shape our knowledge and actions in regards to events today).

The authors begin their exploration with a set of successful examples: times when the appropriate course of action was taken by looking at prior examples and how these decisions were shaped in those moments. They discuss first the Cuban Missile Crisis (miraculous as it was that the world didn't dissolve into a nuclear holocaust at that time) and then social security reforms.

After these two examples, the professors begin diving into the methodology of how to properly remember and interpret history so that it can shape and guide our practices. First, they state that it's imperative to find a piece of relevant history that fits the situation you are experiencing. Next, they require you to question your assumptions about what parties are right and wrong—to ensure that you remain unbiased and can make the right judgment.

After this, part of the process of interpreting history is to understand individuals and groups within the context of the event; you "place" strangers (unrelated individuals) to see how they would react to the event, and then do the same for organizations—governmental and independent. Finally, you search for patterns in the responses of the individuals, in the behaviors that led to the event, and so on. Doing this will help you take the appropriate action.

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