On Not Learning

Just around the time of the earthquake in Haiti there was an article in the New York Review of Books (Witness to Horror by Charles Simic) in which part of a paragraph grabbed my attention:

History repeats itself in unhappy countries. The absence of respected institutions and well-established laws that a person can count on to protect him condemns these societies to reenact the same conflicts, make the same mistakes more than once, and bear the same horrific consequences of these acts.

There is an important truth here: To learn from one’s mistakes there is need for a minimal institutional infrastructure, for some kind of a learning apparatus, for some rules of conduct that facilitate reflection. Learning just doesn’t happen by itself.

My thoughts turned immediately to the Pakistan cricket team and then to Pakistan itself. Take the cricket team first that has just concluded a forgettable tour of Australia in which it lost every single match. I recall reading the statements of the players and coaches after every one of these matches about how the defeat has yielded lessons that would help them improve their performance in the future. Even at the end of the tour when every last match had been lost, the refrain was the same. Here is the statement of the captain: “You always learn from your mistakes and whenever we tour Australia we always learn from here. We have to do some hard work on our batting.”

Yet, it is clear that no learning ever took place during the tour – match after match the very same mistakes were repeated. And the likelihood of any subsequent learning seems negligible. The only conclusion is that the institutional arrangements that enable learning are missing.

The world of cricket could well be considered a microcosm of the country itself. Just consider the history of its foreign policy adventures ever since its creation. Each and every one of them left it at the wrong end of the outcome. And, yet, there followed similar interventions in Afghanistan and in Kargil. Did any learning take place over the years? And, if not, why not?

There is no doubt that Haiti is an unfortunate country but there are many good reasons for its misfortune. American Marines invaded the country in 1915 and the brutal dictator Papa Doc Duvalier received $40 million from Washington to protect American capital. Papa Doc’s heir Baby Doc Duvalier was flown to France in 1986 in an American military jet courtesy of Ronald Reagan. Clinton ordered another intervention in 1994.

But what is it that makes Pakistan an ‘unfortunate’ country that is unable to learn anything from its troubled history to the point that it is now a client state existing in semi-darkness without electricity or gas?

I feel it is here that Simic misses a dimension of this phenomenon. There are some people (Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier and their coterie from Haiti’s small, educated ruling class) who have done very well out of Haiti’s misfortunes. Quite similarly, there is a ruling class in Pakistan that has benefited enormously. They have their havens abroad and are ready to flee (with or without courtesy jets) when it becomes impossible to extend their rule by another day. Each and every misadventure has helped this class extend its grip on the resources of the country. For this class, these were not mistakes and there was nothing to learn. Each adventure was a self-interested attempt to forestall changes that would have curtailed their power and privileges.

The real question is this: Why have the citizens, who have suffered grievously on account of these misadventures, not learnt anything from this history? Why does this suffering majority remain supportive of foreign adventures, of liberating territory, of teaching lessons to imagined enemies? Why do they keep supporting the same people who have been the cause of their misfortunes?

This is the question that deserves our attention.

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4 Responses to “On Not Learning”

  1. Vinod Says:

    Are the ruling class an inward looking group that consciously try to keep others out? If so, how can one destabilize them? If they are so but unconsciously, what brings about such group behaviour?


    Are there other forces at play that prevent any attempts by genuinely caring members of this class at empowering voices from beyond this class? Is this a systems issue or is this a behaviour issue?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I feel it is both a systems and a behavior issue – behavior within a system. By and large, people act in their self-interest. When many people have the same interest, we get an interest group. There are always some who are in the group but not of it – the rebels. Most of the time they are marginalized or eliminated by the majority. Sometimes systemic forces help to amplify the message of the rebels and destabilize the group. The French Revolution is a good example of this process.

  2. Shreekant Gupta Says:

    This is difficult but important question. Something that needs thought. So I shall not offer any pithy answers.

    All I can say is that this questions can be answered at several levels. As individuals, do we learn from our past mistakes? Do we not often lock ourselves into making the same mistakes over and over again?

    I wonder if failure (like success) is habit forming?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Shreekant: The most useful approach is to think of the individual and group levels separately as you have indicated. If individuals didn’t learn from their mistakes, the entire logic of teaching as a profession would be questioned, wouldn’t it? Of course, not all students learn from their mistakes but the premise is that most can and do. The key is that one also has to teach the learning process. It helps to make a distinction between making a mistake and being stupid. Anyone can make mistakes – the wise learn from them and the foolish don’t.

      When one gets to the group level, the dynamic is much more complicated. Most people make the error of thinking of the group as an individual and ignoring what goes on within the group. Thus the statement that Pakistan made a mistake by invading Kargil really makes no sense. Pakistan is not a person that does this or that – it is just the name of an inanimate piece of land. The army invaded Kargil because (many claim) it wanted to sabotage the peace process that it did not perceive to be in its group interest. So from the army’s perspective it was not a mistake at all – it was a very successful intervention at the cost of the ordinary citizens of the country and the democratic process.

      One can apply the same logic to the cricket team. If there is infighting and one group does not wish the team to succeed under the captaincy of a player from the other group, it can advance its purpose by making sure a match is lost. If the group is involved in match-fixing, it can also be successful by losing a match. Ignoring such dynamics and reaching a conclusion that ‘Pakistan’ made mistakes from which it would learn would be naive. It is not ‘Pakistan’ that is playing – it is eleven individuals who all have their own objectives to maximize. Taking the group dynamic into account could explain why the Pakistan cricket team has never learnt from what are termed to be its ‘mistakes’.

      The corollary is that teams that manage to align the objectives of their players do well – those who pull together perform better. And that – incentive compatibility – is the real challenge at the group level.

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