11/26/2013 10:00 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Don't Leave History in the Past

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,"
Reason in Common Sense, in The Life of Reason: Vol. 1.

George Santayana (1863-1952)

Today's students learn their crafts in state-of-the-art facilities with cutting-edge, often high-tech equipment. They conduct research to drive the debates of tomorrow, to invent the products of the future, to make discoveries we have yet to even dream of. Higher education institutions, like Georgia Regents University, strive to provide our students with the best, most up-to-date learning environments possible, to ensure they graduate at the very apex of knowledge in their disciplines.

So why should anyone care about the state of their field in the past?

More than 20 years of leadership experience in higher education, research, and health care have taught me that we should care. Knowledge of the history of our professions and our fields of discipline can provide us:

  • An understanding of the current state of development of a specific field of study. Being familiar with previous investigations, debates, uncertainties, and theories surrounding a particular topic can unearth historical biases in current thinking, potentially signaling areas that need closer reassessment. Awareness of earlier controversies and critical questions that were raised can provide a broader base from which to approach today's discussions.
  • A broader perspective on the development of theoretical knowledge in general. It's useful to be cognizant -- and a little humble -- about our place in history. Learning about earlier explorations can teach us how conceptual errors due to our own biases and prejudices can creep into our thinking -- and can help us avoid them by stimulating a critical and skeptical attitude when we asses current thinking and dogma. History can provide perspective on future investigative and industry trends by extrapolating their development from the past through the present.
  • A more in-depth perspective on the role of the profession in the development of society and culture as a whole, and vice-versa. No field of study exists in a vacuum, but like almost everything else, is partly a product of prevailing cultural and societal norms. That's as true today as ever, no matter how rigorously independent we aim to be. Studying a discipline in its historical context can increase our understanding of the impact of social conflict and attitudes on thinking and practice, which in turn, can help minimize their impact on our own study and practice. And awareness of the impact of discovery on the development of culture and society keeps us alert to potential ethical and moral dilemmas that those new discoveries may give rise to.
  • An understanding of our place in the life of a profession and field of study many years in development. Studying history can create a sense of identity with our profession and elevate our appreciation for the important, even critical, role that individual thought leaders can have in a particular field of study. At the same time, it can help us maintain perspective when controversies erupt, reminding us of their likely limited importance in the long run.
  • A hedge against spending time reinventing the wheel. While I don't completely agree with the idiom, "There's nothing new under the sun," we humans have been around a long time and are fundamentally the same creatures we've always been. Therefore, there's a good chance that our brilliant new idea has actually been considered before, and valuable, time-saving information may be gleaned from earlier explorations and discussions.

Much of this has played out in my own field of study, medicine, and in my particular area of research, namely androgen excess disorders. Androgen excess disorders (disorders characterized by the production of excess male hormones) is the single most common hormone-related problem of women, affecting approximately 10 percent of the female population. These are complicated disorders that comprise multiple types with varying causes and symptoms, and can result in conditions ranging widely from minor inconvenience to acute pathology.

Much progress has been made in our understanding of these disorders in the past 25 years. But there is very little data on the history of our knowledge about them, despite their pervasive nature and the significant impact they exert on the lives of affected women and their partners, as well as on our economy.

The absence of a historical perspective results in a relatively narrow view of what is a very broad and interdisciplinary field, and serves to limit the very much needed collaboration between the many clinical specialties that see these patients, e.g., pediatricians, medical and reproductive endocrinologists, obstetrician/gynecologists (Ob/Gyns), epidemiologists, etc.

It also leads many -- in both the medical and lay communities -- to assume that these disorders have arrived only recently and are primarily the result of immediate and contemporary environmental stresses and conditions. A broader historical perspective would help us determine whether they have been present throughout recorded history and whether the higher incidence observed today simply reflects greater recognition and a greater severity of clinical features.

Finally, the lack of historical perspective in an era of increased molecular targeting (microarray, proteomics, gene scanning, etc.) could mean we too narrowly focus our efforts on one feature, thus losing our view of the entire entity, the whole being.

Thus, a greater degree of understanding of the history of a discipline in general, like the history of androgen excess in particular, has the potential of providing a richer, deeper, and more valuable perspective on many current areas of research and industry. Let's be sure we include considerations of our past when we educate students and ourselves about where the field is going to be in the future.