The Ten-Year Rule

I have decided that, when school resumes in January, I will give my students an assignment in which I will ask them to analyse the IB’s 10-year rule and determine if they think that it is a well-reasoned rule.

This morning, I was reading an essay by Umair Haque titled What Do You Call a World That Can’t Learn From Itself? Although it begins as a criticism of the US and its decline in standard of living, especially when compared to Europe, and there is a rallying cry against American exceptionalism and Andrew Jackson, but it is also a relatively short treatise on human nature and an unwillingness to learn—hence the title.

The section which really captured my attention stated:

History teaches us tragedy with irony. And this to me is the greatest irony of now. We are making three great mistakes in this age. The first is that we cannot learn from modern history — which is the story of Trump and America and tyranny. The second is that we cannot learn from deep history — that the whole story of human progress has been written by lifting one another up, not keeping anyone else down, and so the seductive ur-myth of the fascist, that I rise by pulling you down, right down into the abyss, is mesmerizing societies whole.
The third mistake we are making, though, is more invisible, and perhaps the greatest of all — what this essay is about: we cannot learn from one another anymore. How do we learn things? We can learn only in these three ways: from our own mistakes, from the mistakes all people have made, or from the fortunes and misfortunes of our peers. And of those three, the swiftest way to learn is to simply look at what others are doing, that work, and copy it.

I started to think about the larger scope of history upon reading this.  Haque appears to be turning Santayana on his head, but what is he reacting to?  The essay starts with anecdotes about his writing life on both sides of the Atlantic, but becomes a wider comparison of life, and culminates with the assessment that a certain level of tribalism (which seems to be the word of the month, even though it was considered outdated not too long ago) prevents us from learning from others.

What does this have to do with the 10-year rule?

Haque uses the phrase ‘modern history’ and does not define what he means by that.   I am very happy that the IB has given us a clear directive regarding when history ends, for the purposes of IB examination.  For the students, it means that most of what is in their memory is not considered history, and that makes it easier for them.  It gives some time and space, so that there is distance in making judgments.  I don’t always agree with the ten year rule – in some instances, there is not enough time and space, especially for those who inhabit places where memories of tragedies remain fresh – but the parameters are clear.

The 10-year rule does not mean that we cannot discuss more recent events with our students, and in fact it allows us to use history as a tool to understand our present and make prescriptions for the future.  Our profession is as relevant and important now as it as ever been, yet it is also ignored, and studiously so.

One other consideration of the 10-year rule is the acceleration of human history in the last 100 years.  I am so fond of teaching the history of Cleopatra because there is so little historical knowledge on her (thank you Stephanie Schiff), but we have the opposite issue with more modern events: the data and evidence for any event are endless, and the 10-year rule helps provide much-needed time to sort through available materials and come up with plausible explanations of the historical concepts of cause, consequence, continuity, change significance and perspective.

When looking for a graphic for this posting, I came across a slide that showed how either 10,000 hours or 10 years were the time frame for acquiring expertise.  This hypothesis dates back to 1973 when researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University were trying to determine how much time was needed for professional athletes to develop the skills that put them into this elite category.  Our students accept 10 years for intangible reasons, but they also seem to understand that less than this does not allow for substantial distance from events.

I want to see if they reach these conclusions on their own; if this concept has been addressed in their Theory of Knowledge class; and if the unwillingness to learn is as Haque has stated.  If these young people understand the importance of the 10-year rule without being told why it is important, that is a positive indication of their understanding of history as a discipline.

Source: Umair Haque, What Do You Call a World That Can’t Learn From Itself? Published December 18, 2017, available on the Medium site (


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