Historians of the World, Un173! ūüíĎ

Guldi, Jo and David Armitage.  The History Manifesto.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Why did I read this book?

I found this book when browsing through the booksellers’ displays at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Denver, CO a couple weeks ago. ¬†The front cover posed a particularly timely question in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory: “How should historians speak truth to power… ?” ¬†Additionally, the front cover deals with the issue of scale in history writing, which was the focus of this year’s meeting. I picked it up to read between sessions that weekend and on the flight home.

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Structure

Introduction: Cultural critique: “a crisis of short-termism” (7)

The rise of long-term thinking among historians (Chapter One)

The decline of long-term thinking among historians (Chapter Two)

The return of long-term thinking as a critical human science (Chapter Three)

The potential future of long-term thinking (Chapter Four)

Storytellers of the Information Age

The authors begin¬†with a cultural critique – what they call the “crisis of short-termism” of our current moment. ¬†Every aspect of life seems¬†to operate on increasingly immediate time-scales. ¬†As a whole, our society is losing¬†its attention span. ¬†Historians have not been immune to this trend, and the authors seek to tell the story of how the historical profession retreated from broader perspectives toward increasingly marginalized micro-histories. ¬†They seek to encourage historians¬†to use their unique skill set as narrators of change over time to address this crisis of short-termism. ¬†The role of the historian, then, is one of a publicly-engaged synthesizer of various forms of data into story.

“History… can be just the arbiter we need at this critical time.” (7)

“An information society like ours needs synthesists and arbiters to talk about the use we make of climate data tables and economic indicators. ¬†It needs guides whose role is to examine the data being collected, the stories being told about it, and the actions taken from there, and to point out the continuities, discontinuities, lies, mismanagement, and outright confusion that occur in the process. ¬†But, above all, it needs to make those large stories comprehensible to the public it seeks to inform about future horizons and their meaning.” (56)

“The public needs stories about how we came to be at the brink of an ecological crisis and a crisis of inequality.” (119)

Prophets of the Information Age

Guldi and Armitage do not merely deal with what the past can teach us about the present moment.  They encourage the historical profession to reengage with speculating about the future which they have largely conceded to sociologists and economists.  Specifically, they encourage three approaches to historical thinking:

  1. Thinking about Destiny and Free Will (30-31)
  2. Counterfactual Thinking (31-34)
  3. Utopian Thinking (34-35)

Chapter 3, “The long and the short: Climate change, governance, and inequality since the 1970s” directly engages the future challenges facing humanity. ¬†To understand these challenges, narratives are needed which cross disciplinary and national boundaries, make fluid use of temporal scale, and critique the false stories which contribute to the crisis of short-term thinking.

The closing chapter deals with the challenge facing historians: the digitization, curation, comparing, critiquing, synthesizing enormous volumes of data. ¬†The focus is particularly upon the responsibility of the university to train historians¬†to “step into new roles as data specialists, [speak] in public about other people’s data, us[e] their own scholarship to compare and contrast the methods of growth economists with the warnings of climate scientists.” (115)

“It may be little wonder, then, that we have a crisis of global governance, that we are all at the mercy of unregulated financial markets, and that anthropogenic climate change threatens our political stability and the survival of species. ¬†To put these challenges in perspective, and to combat the short-termism of our time, we urgently need the wide-angle, long-range views only historians can provide.” (125)

Reactions

As a reader of histories, I certainly wish them well.  As a reader, I would love to read more interdisciplinary, transnational, trans-temporal histories.  As a thinker, these are ideals to aspire to in my own thinking about my current experience.  The book does raise questions in my mind, such as:

  1. What would the data scientist say to this argument?  How do people who deal with enormous (especially quantifiable) datasets see the need for people trained in more general, typically more qualitative analysis?
  2. What are the institutional measures needed in the university to actually produce this sort of historian? ¬†Don’t the current institutional requirements for tenure-track positions benefit the historian focused upon the micro-historical?
  3. What are the institutional measures needed in public life and in the media to incentivize this sort of publically-engaged… writing? speaking? art? podcasts? museums? ¬†What would this actually look like in practice?
  4. How would we deal with the root cause of this crisis of short-termism?

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