HM - Sept. 2015 - Edwards

Classroom Applications

Analogical Thinking in Historical Studies

Chris Edwards, Ed. D
Fishers High School
Fishers, IN

Evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy indicate that the brain is an analogy-making apparatus. Content that is stored in the brain’s working memory is connected to other forms of information, and the ability to compare between situations and scenarios, to determine the similarities and differences of the situations and scenarios, is what constitutes the highest forms of thinking. Mastery of content, therefore, is in integral part of the process of thinking. This understanding gives a new purpose to teachers of history. The discipline of history can now be seen as the process of studying content for the purpose of creating and judging analogies. This process can be done in such a way that literacy standards are addressed, content is mastered, and teachers have the opportunity to engage in a creative and engaging process.

The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has explained that the brain connects information that is learned in tandem, particularly if some novel type of connection is made between two scenarios that may not immediately appear to be similar. This ability to see cross-curricular patterns, the ability to superimpose lessons learned from one field onto the content of another, is the central function of thought and in its most novel forms, the stuff that genius is molded from. Douglas Hofstadter, in particular, has made the case that analogy is the only form of thinking, and that deepest insights from theoretical physics may be seen as analogies (ie: E=MC2 is a statement that energy is directly analogous to mass). Content, according to Hofstadter, “fuels” analogies and therefore thought. A lack of content area mastery leads thinkers into forming “naïve analogies” which are often at the heart of bad decision-making and thinking. Hofstadter and his co-writer Emmanuel Sander go so far as to write that “What the study of naïve analogies tells us about the human mind is of paramount importance for education…” (p.389).

The reason that content is so important is because the more that a person knows about various situations and scenarios, the more able she is to determine the similarities and differences between the two. Further, the more situations and scenarios that a person is familiar with, the more able a person is to draw on a well of potential analogies to see which formerly learned situation or scenario is most like the new one recently confronted. Informed decisions can then be made. The neurobiologist, John G. Geake, who studies “gifted” students and makes recommendations for best practice in how to educate those students, has noted that teachers of the gifted should “Set tasks with high working memory demands…” Students with large amounts of information in the working memory can then draw on content for the purpose of making analogies. It is important to note that a student would not need to remember encyclopedic details of content, but merely to have a “spark” of impression that would initially allow for a novel connection. The student could then engage in research for details.

All of this is relevant to classroom teachers not only because it provides some guidelines for classroom practice but also because new literacy standards (Common Core and its variants) require that teachers put an emphasis on teaching students how to read complex academic text. The problem with these literacy standards, as many critics have explained, is that they deemphasize content. Teachers should see this lack of emphasis on content in the standards as an opportunity rather than a deficiency. Classroom practitioners are freed from the need to teach one historical event after another, and can actually use history to develop reading skills and higher order thinking skills.

Textbooks and workbooks are not designed to utilize the power of analogical thinking, so teachers who want to engage students will have provide exemplars for the way in which this kind of analysis can be used. The following is an assignment which utilizes the power of analogy.

The assignment is divided into three components. First, students must read this essay comparing the outbreak of World War I with the outbreak of World War II and then with the Cuban Missile Crisis and answer the questions using textual evidence. This brings the assignment in alignment with literacy standards. Secondly, students will research three pre-chosen scenarios for the purpose of finding similarities and differences. Thirdly, students will express learning through a product.

Part I:
The Technology-Gap Thesis for the Outbreak of WWI: The Conclusion of a New Method of Historical Analysis
One hundred years after outbreak of the First World War, historians are still trying to interpret the war’s major causal factors. Much of the analysis has been hampered, however, by the antiquated techniques of historical scholarship. Historians tend to begin with research questions, study facts from a clearly defined region and time period, and then develop a narrow thesis based upon that scholarship. A new form of historical analysis, which tests theses by trying to apply them to other sets of historical facts which are closely analogous, can lead to deeper understanding. When applied to the causes of WWI, this new method of analysis leads to the understanding that the major cause of the First World War had less to do with the types of large-scale geopolitical events that draw the attention of historians and more to do with a technology gap which briefly existed where the human capacity to kill outdistanced the human capacity to communicate.

Humans in the West could not kill each other on a large mechanized scale until the latter part of the nineteenth century. In fact, violence of the scale of WWI could only have occurred in a narrow time frame of roughly thirty-one years. Those years are 1884, when the Maxim gun was invented, and 1915 when the first transatlantic phone call was made. The thirty-one years in between represent the years when the historical technology gap between the human capacity to kill and the human capacity to communicate remained horrifically out of alignment. Other factors, principally the German decision to build a powerful navy and the general spread of the draft across Europe, caused a climate of suspicion, but the military historian John Keegan has specifically noted the importance of communication for the outbreak of WWI:

There was, briefly, the circulation of a feeling that the crisis, like those of 1909 and 1913, might be talked out. The weakness of that hope was the ignorance and misunderstanding among politicians and diplomats of how the mechanism of abstract war plans, once instigated, would operate…It was those at the point of decision – in the entourages of the Tsar and Kaiser, in Paris, in Vienna, in London – who were heard. They, moreover, did not equally share the information available, nor understand what they did share in the same way. Information arrived fitfully but was always incomplete. There was no way of correlating it and displaying it. In 1914, lack of information consumed time as men puzzled to fill the gaps between facts they had. Time, in all crises, is usually the ingredient missing to make a solution (p. 46).

The Germans likely acted as the first aggressor in the war because their unfavorable geographic position meant they would lose the most by becoming the reactionary figures. The Germans, trapped between France and Russia, felt as if they had to act first in order to have a chance at victory. The Schlieffen Plan, which called for an invasion of France through Belgium, grew around the core notion that the Germans had to act quickly. Once the Germans believed war to be inevitable, a decision they made in absence of communication with the other potential belligerents, they invaded Belgium. (Germany, by the way, never could solve their geographic problem. In WWI they achieved rapid success in Russia but got bogged down in France and in WWII the opposite occurred.)

Just one or two years after the outbreak of WWI, the technology gap closed and instantaneous international communication became possible, but that did nothing to help in 1914. In 1914, no one wanted war, but no one wanted to be caught off guard if war occurred anyway. The obvious criticism of the technology-gap thesis presented here is that a Second World War broke out again in the later 1930’s (The year of WWII’s outbreak is now debatable) when international communications technology existed and the world even had a League of Nations which had been created for the primary purpose of allowing discussion. However, the outbreak of WWI and WWII should not be considered analogous for reasons to be explained.

WWI and WWII Are Not Alike
In his 2006 book, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, Niall Ferguson claimed that “The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era” (xxxiv). However, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker drew this notion into question and wrote “…there are two reasons to suspect that the bloodiest-century factoid is an illusion” (p. 193). Those two reasons are that while more people were killed in violent deaths in the twentieth century this has to be balanced against the greater population levels that century offered in comparison with the past. Secondly, historians tend to focus on eras which are closer to our own time. Ferguson commits this second fallacy because he did not check his thesis against cases where all three of the factors he named were present but where violence did not break out. (In the appendix of his book, Ferguson hedges on his claim about how violent the twentieth century was by writing that his original assertion was “…by no means beyond dispute…Estimates for death tolls in twentieth-century conflicts are unreliable enough. Those for earlier wars are worse….” This makes it unclear why he included the words “without question” when even he admits there are plenty of questions.)

The central problem with Ferguson’s book is that he tried to use a single thesis, the notion of “ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline” (p. xli), to explain not just WWI and WWII but all of the major bloodshed of the twentieth century. This approach causes one to miss the historical nuances which help shape historical analogies, something crucial to testing a historical hypothesis. This is the same kind of mistake that oncologists have made in the past when they have treated tumors that have certain similar characteristics with the same treatment, only to find that nuanced differences in the makeup of the tumors make some of them resistant. The better approach, for oncology and history, is to study deeply into the topic (be it an historical era or tumor) and then to find other analogous situations and then try to apply the same treatment. This allows for the separation and analysis of factors.

The causes of the Second World War are so different from that of the First World War that the two wars should not be thought of as being more than tangentially related. Luck, as much as anything, brought Hitler to power (this is not a flippant causation; Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s best biographer, indicates that no one ever better personified the phrase “luck of the Devil”), and once in power Hitler manipulated the communication process in a way that no one in 1914 would have. Nazism has proved to be hard to define, but it can best be understood as institutionalized psychopathy. In other words, the Nazis intended to create a society that rewarded psychopathic behavior, and an embrasure of warfare as a positive good for determining the strength of societies and races stood at the core of Nazi ideology. No comparable ideology existed in 1914.

WWI’s outbreak, in other words, is not analogous to the outbreak of WWII. The two wars are compared based not upon their causes but upon their effects. To test the impact of communication capacity on the outbreak of violence, we should look for another situation where an event in a relatively minor region led or almost led to a breakout of large-scale violence between major powers. The closest analogy we have to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia, therefore, is neither the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking nor the 1939 German invasion of Poland. Both of these invasions were the product of plans which had been long in concept and manifestations of specific ideologies and neither occurred in reaction to a specific event. The Cold War provides a better analogy.

Comparing 1914 and 1962

When looking for an historical event to compare to 1914, the closest analogy to the outbreak of WWI is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. Events behind the Cuban Missile Crisis featured many similarities to those behind the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Both cases featured a climate of suspicion and fear. Also, in both cases a major global power acted aggressively in a small region that, because of its geographic location, posed a threat to another major power. In 1914, the Russians did not want to see German/Austro-Hungarian hegemony in Serbia. In 1962, the Americans did not want to see Soviet hegemony in Cuba. Ultimatums appear in both cases as well. In 1914, the Austro-Hungarians made specific demands that Serbia was required to acquiesce to or else face war, and in 1962 President Kennedy stated that his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, must remove the missiles in Cuba or else face war. In both cases, all the major political figures made aggressive public pronouncements that would have been hard to back down from without losing face. (Steven Pinker cites this type of national honor as a major reason for the outbreak of war in previous centuries.)

So why did war break out in 1914 but not 1962? One answer might be that the nuclear weapons available to both the Americans and the Soviets in 1962 made war so destructive that both sides realized that a world war would be too destructive to risk, something resulting in what Steven Pinker calls “the Long Peace.”  Pinker dismisses notion of a “nuclear peace” as wishful, indeed delusional, thinking:

If the Long Peace were a nuclear peace, it would be a fool’s paradise, because an accident, a miscommunication, or an air force general obsessed with precious bodily fluids could set off an apocalypse. Thankfully, a closer look suggests that the threat of a nuclear annihilation deserves little credit for the Long Peace.

For one thing, weapons of mass destruction had never braked the march to war before…Similar predictions have been made about submarines, artillery, smokeless powder, and the machine gun. The 1930s saw a widespread fear that poison gas dropped from airplanes could bring an end to civilization and human life, yet that dread did not come close to ending war either (p. 268). 

Try to imagine the Cuban Missile Crisis with the missiles but without the phones and we have a situation almost directly analogous to the crisis of 1914. By 1962, the technology gap between the human capacity to kill and the human capacity to communicate had closed and while Khrushchev and Kennedy both possessed their flaws, neither can be described as a psychopathic warmonger in the vein of Adolph Hitler. They were both more like the relatively reasonable diplomats in charge of the major countries of 1914 in the sense that they were concerned about the honor and prestige of their countries but not desirous of war. Perhaps the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a phrase created by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, should be replaced with the phrase Mutually Assured Communication (MAC). Communications technology, more than weapons technology, is likely responsible for the “long peace.”

It has been hard to see this because international communications technology existed during the outbreak of WWII and nuclear missiles did not, but, again, the outbreak of WWII should be considered a historical anomaly. In 1962, Khrushchev and Kennedy could make public proclamations but hold secret conferences as Khrushchev did when he had Stewart Udall, the American Secretary of the Interior, flown to a meeting place in the Black Sea in early September of 1962 to discuss American intentions even before the crisis broke out. Then, after an American spy plane photographed the Soviets moving missiles into Cuba, Kennedy issued a public ultimatum. On October 24, 1962, however, Khrushchev could send a direct communication to Kennedy that, while being aggressive in tone, also indicated that the Soviets would not deliberately fire on the United States without provocation. This left a slight opening for diplomacy.

Kennedy could then use international communications technology to make a secret agreement to remove American missiles from Europe in an exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Diplomacy of this kind could not have occurred in 1914 and so therefore represents the key difference between the pre-communication era and the post-communication era.  The historical lesson, then, is that communication can almost always prevent war when one of the communicators is not psychopathic or acting on behalf of a psychopathic ideology. This lends credence to the technology-gap theory of WWI’s causation.

Proper historical analysis requires the testing of thesis against other analogous forms of historical facts. A thesis used for one set of facts should describe the events of another set of facts and when it does not, then the differences between the separate historical eras should be separated and identified. In this case, the outbreak of war in 1914 is most analogous to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but the effects of the two similar situations turned out to be radically different because of the major difference between the two eras. Since humans possessed a massive killing capacity in both eras, the difference lies in the ability to communicate. The technology-gap thesis therefore emerges as the best explanation for why WWI occurred and for why something like it could (probably) not happen again.


(Answers must be in complete sentences and must include textual evidence.)

1.    What was the status of international communication in 1914?
2.    What was Germany’s geographic situation and how did it affect the outbreak of the war?
3.    What is the key disagreement between Stephen Pinker and Niall Ferguson?
4.    What mistake did Ferguson make regarding WWI and WWII in his 2006 book?
5.    What was a major similarity between the outbreak of WWI and the Cuban Missile Crisis?
6.    What was the major difference between the two events?


Part II: Independent Research
Research the collapse of the Ottoman Empire post-WWI and compare it with the collapse of the Mughal Empire between 1707 and 1757. Compare the effect of the Ottoman fall on the Middle East with the collapse of the Mughal on India. Search for two similarities and two differences.

Part III
Students can write a paper with a thesis statement that includes the similarities and differences or create a digital project that includes the elements from research. Teachers can use their own strengths and creativity to determine how students should express their learning.


Students need to see this type of historical analysis using analogy in practice before they can begin to practice it. This is the purpose behind the study of section one. Sections two and three require that students use the techniques they have seen modeled to research, think and ultimately create. Thinkers and researches in the fields of neuroscience and philosophy make too compelling of a case for the use of analogy in teaching and learning for teachers not to consider establishing analogy at the center of their curriculum.


Ferguson, Niall. (2006). The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. New York: Penguin.
Geake, John G. (2007). High Abilities at Fluid Analogising: A Cognitive Neuroscience Construct of Giftedness. Roeper Review.
Greenfield, Susan. (2015). Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Marks on our Brains. New York: Random House.
Keegan, John. (2001). An Illustrated History of the First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Pinker, Steven. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.
Khrushchev Letter to President Kennedy (1962).