Fifty years ago, historians advised politicians and policy-makers. They helped chart the future of nations, by helping leaders learn from past mistakes in history. But then something changed, and we began making decisions based on economic principles rather than historical ones. The results were catastrophic.
Photograph of dust bowl survivors, by Dorothea Lange
According to historians David Armitage and Jo Guldi, authors of a new book called The History Manifesto, historians ceded authority to economists by losing their long view. They stopped studying broad stretches of time, refused to analyze long-term trends over centuries or even millennia. Instead, according to Armitage and Guldi, they gave in to "short-termism," focusing on obscure moments in history that weren't relevant to the public sphere.
The humanities departments of our universities should be the place to go for a long look in the rear-view mirror ... within the humanities, it is the discipline of history that provides an antidote to short-termism, by giving pointers to the long future derived from knowledge of the deep past. Yet at least since the 1970s, most professional historians – that is, most historians holding doctorates in the field and teaching in universities or colleges – conducted most of their research on timescales of between five and 50 years ...
A recent survey of some 8,000 history dissertations written in the US since the 1880s has shown that the average period covered in 1900 was about 75 years; by 1975, that had shrunk to about 30 ... Moving to a Short Past, without an eye to action or a tilt towards the future, marked professional skill but also broke historians from their long-developed habit of informing the public sphere.
At the same time, they write, economists began to move into the political arena.
In the 1970s, as historians became enchanted with microhistories, economists were expanding the reach of their discipline. Nations, states and cities began to plan for the future by consulting with economists whose prognostications were shaped by investment cycles rather than historical ones. The problem wasn't so much with economics in general, but with using it as the only method for thinking about decision-making. Armitage and Guldi argue that economists delivered short-term solutions to the public, while historians retreated into the "Short Past," rarely educating a public desperately in need of some long-term perspective.
This need has become particularly acute over the past decade, as long-term issues like climate change have come to the fore. It's time, say Armitage and Guldi, for historians to start taking the long view of history again. And that means reclaiming their places as public figures who can help us understand the many pathways the future might take. After all, history is a vast dataset of choices and consequences. We should be learning from it.
To spur this transformation, Armitage and Guldi want to revive a mid-twentieth century idea coined by French historian Fernand Braudel. Called the "longue durée," it means simply "long term." Braudel conceived it while in a German detention camp:
Between 1940 and 1945, Braudel planned his masterwork while he was held in detention camps in Germany where he had lectured to his fellow inmates on the course and meaning of history. He later reflected that the unchanging rhythms of internment – the repetitive routines, seemingly without hope or reason – forced him to think along longer timescales in order to recover hope beyond the tedium of the daily round.
Camp life strongly shaped Braudel's vision of the Mediterranean past, which he told as three successive histories: a 'seemingly immobile' story of the unchanging physical environment; a 'gently paced' history of states, societies, and civilisations; and the more conventional narrative of those 'brief, rapid, nervous oscillations' called events. For Braudel, events were the 'froth' on the waves of time but they should not be confused with history, which took place at much greater depths and often hidden from view.
Braudel offered history as the only discipline capable of explaining how immediate events fit into larger, indeed, longer patterns.
Right now, it's as if short-term economic thinking has locked us into "rhythms of internment," preventing us from understanding how to respond to long-term problems like energy and the environment. Armitage and Guldi have issued a call to change that.
Their view is that history combines the best of science with the humanities, offering us reams of data while also placing it in an interpretive framework. History, they suggest, helps us understand that there are many possible outcomes any any given situation, but that certain courses of action are more likely to succeed. Unlike economics, whose sole preoccupation in our finance-obsessed era is the near-term profit motive, history offers a way to place our tiny lifespans in a narrative that spans dozens of generations — perhaps even reaching into a future where capitalism is no longer our dominant form of economic organization. After all, economic systems rise and fall just like empires. That's the kind of perspective we need to take, if we hope to prosper for centuries rather than for the next quarter.
The question is how we'll do it. Armitage and Guldi describe how historians are now able to use new software tools for analyzing big data sets from history. They're also joining forces with people in the natural sciences, studying the human impact on the environment.
But Armitage and Guldi aren't just in it for altruistic reasons. They want to reintroduce historians as what they call "statesmen," and have nothing but disgust for non-academic historians whom they call "unaccredited writers" and "non-historians" who produce a "dirty longue durée." They write, "In the last forty years, the public has embraced a series of proliferating myths about our long-term past and its meaning for the future, almost none of them formulated by professional historians."
So the goal here isn't just to replace a short-term economic view with a long-term historical one — it's also to get jobs for professional historians. Given that academia has become such an unstable source of employment, it seems odd that they aren't encouraging "non professional" historians to join them in their quest for the long view. After all, you can't truly have public history if only "accredited" people are allowed to dispense it.
Armitage and Guldi also set up what many historians would call a false dichotomy between long view histories and short-term ones. The authors admit that short-term histories have allowed historians to explore "more original topics," including "the experiences of communities – women, the enslaved, ethnic minorities, among others – that had been sidelined from more traditional histories." Why not argue for a mixture of longue durée and short-term history, so that we have an understanding of both things? I imagine that, if pressed, Armitage and Guldi would admit that's what's needed. But for the purposes of a manifesto, they prefer to take a simplified rhetorical stance.
If we set aside these problems, and ignore the notion that one must be "accredited" in order to explore history, The History Manifesto is an intriguing clarion call for long-term thinking. As the authors write:
History as a discipline is poised to recover its ancient mission as the guide to life but in a new guise as a critical human science, capable of judging data, incorporating it into complex narratives, and presenting its conclusions in forms accessible to the widest possible range of publics as well to those who make the policies that shape all of our lives.
Most importantly, we may be on the cusp of understanding that human history is our greatest guide to the future. Especially if our goal is to thrive over millennia, rather than simply to profit in our lifetimes.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.