The Science of History


Retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and former under secretary of the Army Norm Augustine says history and science go hand-in-hand.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Norm Augustine has had a long career in the engineering and aerospace industry. His is a résumé of success and leadership at some of the world's most respected public and private organizations, including stints at the Department of Defense, as Chief Operating Officer of the Martin Marietta Corporation, and as President of Lockheed Martin.

His expertise might seem far removed from the study of history, but lately Norm Augustine has been thinking that the two disciplines have more in common than you might suppose. Norm, thank you for being with us today.

Norm Augustine: Good to be here, Harmony. Thank you.

Harmony: You wrote a recent opinion piece talking about the importance of history education to the engineer's mind. Tell us a little bit more about that idea and how those two disciplines come together.

Norm: Well actually history and engineering have a lot in common. There are quite a few ways that there are linkages, but the most obvious one I think is that history deals a lot with cause and effect. It teaches critical thinking. And engineering deals with cause and effect and when you do something, what do you produce? It's the same sort of mental exercise, in many respects, that one goes through. But there are many other connections that one could cite.

When I think of the importance of history I always think of not one, but five things. One is that in a democracy we all get one vote and it's very important that people have some understanding of the history of our nation when they cast that vote.

Secondly, we live under a global world and if you don't understand the history of other worlds and you're an engineer -- engineering is a global enterprise today -- and you're abroad and you don't understand people's background, their prejudices, their history, you could make some terrible mistakes of an engineering nature: you design the wrong things.

I think thirdly is, I say it teaches critical thinking, history does.

Fourth, you know it's been said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, and I really believe that's true. Why repeat errors that have been made in the past? Why not learn from the past?

Fifth, history's fun. I've learned to love history and that wasn't true when I was in high school I might say, but that's one of the sad things is I think about the way history is taught today.

Harmony: And this is something that you've noticed in your perspective both as a manager and in a practical way as an engineer; that in the way that we study outcomes and learn from failures that this can make people just more competent and more creative thinkers?

Norm: Yes, I think it's true that, you know, history's analytical. Engineering is analytical. If one is to be successful as a creator, which engineers tend to be, one, you have to have a pretty good understanding of what it is you want to create. But in many cases other people have tried and failed and you have to go back and say, "Why did they fail, what were the choices they had to make?"

Then there's the very pragmatic aspect. In business, engineers today deal all around the world. If you don't understand the people you deal with, if you're surprised by them, if you don't understand the way they think, you're not likely to have successful partnerships. Oh, an example, a few years ago you will recall that there was an incident in Eastern Europe during the conflict there, the former Yugoslavia, where the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy. I never have met a person from China who doesn't believe we did not do it on purpose. I've never met a person from America who believe we did do it on purpose.

When you have such conflicting beliefs, and yet these people are going to be your partners, it's good to understand why they have those conflicting beliefs and why we have our beliefs so that we can work them out. All that, of course, has its root in history.

Sad to say, Americans don't do that well in history today. The article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal I began by pointing out scores of students in various fields such as math and science and history and so on and I've been very concerned about how poorly we do in math and science. So we do do poorly. Turns out we do even worse in history.

Harmony: Let's talk about the teaching of history. It seems like you're working from the underlying belief that we've fallen short in the way that we're teaching history now. It's not fun, it's maybe not as creative, and it's not as comprehensive as you think it really ought to be. How should history be taught?

Norm: I think that history should be taught a lot like the way engineering is taught. That is, to deal with real world examples. To give a student, instead of expecting him to know that on December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor occurred and that's what you need to know. Have them, for example, write a paper as if they were President Truman and the atomic bomb had been invented. Would you use it over a Japanese city, would you not use it at all, would you use it as a demonstration somewhere, what would you have done?

That causes some very tough critical analytical thinking and it puts the person in the role of the person who had to make the decision. It puts the student in that role. All too often today, and certainly when I studied history, it was basically: memorize a bunch of dates and you didn't know how they connected with each other, and frankly it was boring.

Harmony: And you feel like when the study of history becomes more personal, that's when it becomes meaningful and that's when it offers us the most as we solve problems, whether they are engineering or political in life today. What is it about studying those problems, putting yourself in Truman's shoes, for example, and fighting with those values that he struggled with as he tried to make those decisions? What is it about those that make history more meaningful?

Norm: Well, in the case of engineering, engineering is about choices. You always have choices to make and there are always pros and cons of every choice. Seldom do you have a case where all the arguments are on one side, and the same is true in history. If you could be put in the situation when you're studying history that you have to make the choices that people had to make in the past and then you have the benefit of history in knowing the outcome. You can learn from that.

Harmony: Do you feel like we have more empathy for and more understanding of history when we see how some of these choices are the result of somebody having to choose between two good options and maybe having to choose one over the other? There has to be a winner and a loser, but maybe there's two options really that are valuable.

Norm: Certainly it's rare in engineering or business for the government, in my experience, to have all the arguments be on one side and so you have to choose between options. The really tough case is when you have to choose between two poor options. That's, unfortunately, often the case where you're trying to limit damage as opposed to making a big gain and history has those cases. Truman's decision was such a case where there was no good option.

Harmony: In getting ready to talk to you, I've been thinking about the way that we use history. You're an engineer, an aerospace engineer, and it occurs to me that when you're a scientist, the way that a scientist uses history is very direct. It's a very one-to-one correlation. The breakthrough of a previous scientist allows a next generation of scientists to make another breakthrough on top of that.

So we go from the Wright brothers to the flying wing. And then when we think about studying American history it seems like it's a more nebulous concept. It's a more general concept. Do you see those as being two different understandings of history; the way that an engineer or a scientist uses history and the way that maybe a historian looks at the Revolution?

Norm: I suspect that today's era of scientists would look at history differently. Engineers, tend to be very quantitative, they like clean answers, we deal with the laws of nature which are quite predictable in general. If we have adequate knowledge, engineers like to gather all the information they can before they make a decision.

We have that in common with historians, but often in both cases you don't have all the information you'd like to have so I think there are common aspects that are different, but there's much more in common than there are differences I think.

Harmony: Talk to me about what they have in common.

Norm: Well, take decision-making. I think the principal thing in common is the ability to look at the past. When you've done certain things or others have done certain things, what were the outcomes? If you do one that you're looking at for your decision, what's the likely future outcome? That would be something that is very much in common.

A difference, I think, is that engineers like to quantify everything, and unfortunately history can't be quantified in most cases or in many cases; probably most cases. That's frustrating to the engineer. We like to be able to plot a graph and add up the numbers. In science you can sort of do that. In engineering you often can't. Much of what engineers do, particularly today, get very much tied up in the history of science, the history of engineering, the society.

A good systems engineer had better understand economics and social issues and history. Take the case of the supersonic transport or the superconducting super collider. I can make a list. Those programs weren't cancelled because of engineering problems. They were cancelled because of social, economic, cultural, historical issues and engineers better recognize that. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should or that anybody's going to want us to.

Harmony: We've talked about how we should be teaching students in schools, but what about adults? People like you and I walking around right now? What should we be doing?

Norm: For use in school, the thing we could do is to make history a living experience and not just a list of dates to memorize. Put the students in the shoes of the people who had to make the decisions. For adults what I think we need to do is encourage them to read history. History is so fascinating. I enjoy fiction, but I must confess I don't know how anybody reads fiction when history is so much more fascinating and it really happened. So my library at home is full of history books. Probably 80 percent history and biography and 15 percent engineering and 5 percent fiction, but I don't do that because I'm trying to learn more or better my life or get a better job or get a raise. I do it because frankly I enjoy it. History is such a fascinating subject.

Harmony: We've talked about the benefits of studying history. We've talked about the ways in which the study of history can be improved to make it more meaningful and more fun for students. What's at stake if we don't do those things?

Norm: I think, particularly in a democracy, if we don't have an understanding of history among our citizenry we can't run the country. It just won't work. In terms of the business world, in a global economy that we live in, we're going to have partners all around the world. We're going to have competitors all around the world. It's important to know what drives them. What are their goals? What are their past experiences? What is their history?

And if we don't understand those things I think the consequence is that America becomes isolated. We become not part of the global family and the world sort of goes on without us and that's a real danger. Russia tried that. China tried that. They built a wall around themselves and we all know the consequence. America was always, I think, very openly tried very hard to understand history and history of other people the best we can and it's served us very well.

Harmony: Norm, thank you so much for being our guest today. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Norm: Been nice being here. Thank you.


  1. […] Norm Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and former undersecretary of the Army, knows this. He’s eloquent about the role of the humanities — particularly history — in creating great engineers and scientists. For Augustine, education is about citizenship, critical thinking, and understanding the world we live in. And, by the way, Augustine reminds us that education — learning — is supposed to be fun, a pursuit we undertake because we enjoy it. […]

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