Reclaiming history for the future



A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term. We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by a shortage of long-term thinking. Rising sea levels and other threats to our environment; mounting inequality; rotting infrastructure. Our culture lacks a long-term perspective.

Where can we turn for deep knowledge?

To history—the discipline and its subject matter.

Putting long-termism into practice is hard. When we peer into the future, instead of facts, we routinely resort to theories. We have been told, for instance, that there is an end to history and that the world is hot, flat, and crowded. We have read that all human events are reducible to models derived from physics, translated by economics or political science, or explained by a theory of evolution that looks to our hunter-gather ancestors. Popularizations built on the work of social scientists apply economic models to sumo wrestlers and Paleolithic anthropology to customs of dating. The lessons are repeated on the news, and the proponents are elevated to the status of public intellectuals. Their insights seem to point to unchanging levers that govern our world. Even those who inspect the future peer only shortsightedly into the past.

Universities have had a special claim as venues for thinking about the long term, and for most of their history, the responsibility for passing on tradition and subjecting it to critical examination for the future has been borne by the humanities. Within the humanities, the discipline of history, in particular, once provided guidance on the relationship between past and future. That was what Cicero once called history as a “guide of life.”

Yet everywhere we turn, the humanities themselves are said to be in crisis. And the public looking for solutions to short-termism in history departments today might well be disappointed, at least until recently. Historians once told arching stories of scale, but for nearly 40 years, many, if not most, of them stopped doing so. The compression of time in historical work can be illustrated bluntly by the number of years covered in doctoral dissertations conducted in the United States. In 1900 the average number of years covered was about 75. By 1975 it was closer to 30.

Command of the archives; total control of ballooning historiography; an imperative to reconstruct and analyze in ever-finer detail: All those became the hallmark of historical professionalism. Some scholars turned to theories imported from other disciplines, while others sought a safe zone for writing out their political commitments to radical causes, especially, in the United States, the civil-rights movement, antiwar protest, or feminism. Out of various desires, a new kind of history was born, one that concentrated on the “microhistory” of exceptional individuals, seemingly inexplicable events, or significant conjunctures.

Microhistory was not invented to kill historical relevance, but the result was an inward turn of academics toward an ever-greater specialization. Professional historians ceded the task of synthesizing historical knowledge to unaccredited writers—losing whatever influence they might have had over policy to colleagues in the social sciences, most spectacularly to economists. The gulf between academic and nonacademic history widened as the ancient goal for history to be the guide to public life collapsed.

There are now signs that the long-term and the long-range are returning. The scope of doctoral dissertations in history is widening. Professional historians are again writing monographs covering periods of 200 to 2,000 years or more. And there is now an expanding universe of historical horizons: the history of what has come to be called the “Anthropocene,” reaching back at least to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; the “deep history” of the human past, stretching over 40,000 years; and so-called “big history” going back to the Big Bang.

Historians are beginning to recognize that how we understand the past shapes how we think about the future. We look at processes that take a long time to unfold, such as the proliferation of inequality across the world since the early 19th century. We engage false myths about the future as we probe where the data came from, as the case of claims of climate apocalypticism and economic determinism. And we look to many different kinds and sources of data for multiple perspectives on how past and future were, and may yet be, experienced by a variety of different actors, whether, for example, in Western Europe and North America or in South Asia and Africa.

Thinking about the long term requires all of us to adopt the cause of the public future. The public needs stories about how we came to be at the brink of ecological crisis and growing inequality. The moral stakes require that historians choose as large an audience as possible. In the university, much may need to change to make room for public knowledge. Journals that exist behind paywalls, accessible only to those with access to major public or university libraries, need to be supplemented by open-access sources. We need to put easily digestible versions of our research out in the public, and to peer-review the research behind them as quickly and efficiently as possible. The goal should be crucial new syntheses informed by a desire to act on improving the human condition by imagining multiple futures arising from a great variety of pasts.

What we hope for is a kind of history with a continuing role for microhistorical archival work embedded in a larger macro-story woven from secondary sources. The public future of the past is in the hands of historians, “if we are willing to look out of our study windows, and to think of history not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.” The words are those of the American historian J. Franklin Jameson, in 1912. They are urgently relevant today.

Once called upon to offer their advice on political development and land reform, the creation of the welfare state and urban reconstruction, historians, along with other humanists, have effectively ceded the public arena. To put the challenges we face in perspective, and to combat the short-termism of our time, we urgently need the wide-angle, long-range views that historians can provide.

Historians: There is a world to win. Before it is too late.

Author Bio: David Armitage is professor of history at Harvard University. Jo Guldi is assistant professor of history at Brown University. Their book, The History Manifesto, was published this month by Cambridge University Press and is available via open access.