David Armitage and Jo Guldi, two historians at Harvard and Brown, respectively, wrote an interesting article for the Aeon Magazine, Bonfire of the Humanities. Incidentally, Aeon is shaping up very nicely as a reliable source for thoughtful (and not dumbed-down) articles on a spectrum of interesting topics. Full disclosure: I published two articles in it (Return of the Oppressed and Russia’s Sacred Land), so I am not necessarily a disinterested observer.
The Aeon article by Armitage and Guldi, apparently serves as a preview of their recent book, The History Manifesto. I haven’t yet read it, but the blurb on the Amazon sounds interesting:
How should historians speak truth to power – and why does it matter? Why is five hundred years better than five months or five years as a planning horizon? And why is history – especially long-term history – so essential to understanding the multiple pasts which gave rise to our conflicted present? The History Manifesto is a call to arms to historians and everyone interested in the role of history in contemporary society. Leading historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage identify a recent shift back to longer-term narratives, following many decades of increasing specialization, which they argue is vital for the future of historical scholarship and how it is communicated.
The main thrust of the Armitage and Guldi article is that organizations, ranging from corporations to nation-states and supranational entities, all suffer from one particular failure affecting their decision-making: the focus on the immediate past (measured in months or years; at most a decade or two). Armitage and Guldi call this myopic focus “short-termism.”
I am, of course, in complete agreement with this critique. In The Deep Roots of the Modern World: Investigating the Cultural Evolution of Economic Growth and Political Stability (a proposal that was recently funded by the Tricoastal Foundation) Tom Currie and I wrote:
Why is there so much variation in the ability of different human societies to construct viable states and nurture productive economies? Why do states sometimes fail to meet the basic needs of their populations? Why do economies decline? In their search for explanations most economists and political scientists focus on current conditions or the recent past. Yet modern societies did not suddenly appear 30 or even 100 years ago, they gradually evolved from pre-existing societies over many centuries and millennia. History matters.
Yes, history matters. And historians have been shirking their job.
Six years ago, in 2008, when working on an article for the conference on the new approaches to history and Cliodynamics, organized by the Santa Fe Institute (see Cliodynamics at the Santa Fe Institute), I searched the previous 10 years of President’s Columns written by the presidents of the American Historical Association (by definition, eminent historians) for Perspectives on History, a publication of the AHA. I found three columns that discussed the role of general laws or theories in history and the following quote appears to be a fair summary of the opinions of all three:
After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and Social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws. We no longer search for grand designs and dialectics. Instead, we concentrate on the particular and sometimes even the microscopic (microstoria, as it is known in Italy) – not because we think we can see the universe in a grain of sand but because we have developed an increased sensitivity to the complexities that differentiate one society or one subculture from another. Kosovo is very different from the rest of Yugoslavia, to say nothing of Vietnam.
(see my article for citations)
It is heartening to see that historians themselves (or, at least, some of them) are emerging from their fascination with microscopic history, the fascination on the particular, and rejection of general theories.
So far I am with Armitage and Guldi. And they don’t say in the article, but our society should devote more resources to the humanities. It’s shameful that we are allowing the humanities departments in our universities to wither for lack of support.
But I part ways with Armitage and Guldi when they say, “The humanities departments of our universities should be the place to go for a long look in the rear-view mirror.”
Yes, they are good places for a long look back, but should we really turn to historians to help with the questions confronting our societies? Can they tell us why some countries are rich and politically stable, and others poor and politically unstable? How do we ensure that stable and rich countries continue on that happy path (and there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so)? How do we nudge the poor and unstable countries onto the trajectory of increasing and broadly shared well-being?
Just imagine getting a group of eminent historians and asking them for concrete policy recommendations on, for example, how we are going to fix Afghanistan. (Feel free to imagine the ensuing discussion in the comments.)
Scholars can’t even agree on what lessons the collapse of the Roman Empire has for America. Cullen Murphy writes a book, “Are We Rome? The Fall of Empire and the Fate of America.” But Vaclav Smil ripostes with “Why America is not a New Rome.”
No, lessons from history cannot be extracted simply by immersing oneself in it. One has to use the scientific method, and I have written about how to do it in many previous blogs, for example this one.