Historians, turn to the longue durée and focus your minds on the needs of our age. Your insights are needed to address intractable global issues such as climate change, inequality and governance. Dig deep into long time to assist policy makers to steer humanity into a better place.
This is the siren call of The History Manifesto. Written by historians, Jo Guldi of Brown University and David Armitage of Harvard, The History Manifesto seeks to change the direction of the discipline, to make it not only relevant to the world at large but an active contributor of solutions that speaks to the yearning of today.
In my previous post about the Annales school of historians I explained the term longue durée as it was conceived in the middle of the twentieth century. Guldi and Armitage explain how this approach to history fell out of favour in the latter decades of that century and was replaced by interest in micro-history. Micro-histories shone the light on histories that had been obscured in the old-style nationalist political histories, such as the lives of the working class and the subalterns who were marginalised by colonial powers.
Now historians need to embrace the ‘new longue durée’ in their work, say Guldi and Armitage. The new longue durée draws on its Annales heritage but it focusses on the future and its connection to the past as well as responding to the current intellectual environment and modern research tools.
Using the issues of climate change, inequality and governance, the authors explain the value that historians can give by plumbing long periods of the past to explore alternative ways of thinking about current problems. Guldi and Armitage explain that historians can do this by highlighting the evidence that humanity has free will to decide its future, the importance of ‘counter-factual thinking’ and the exploration of alternative ways of doing things that could bring about a better future.
Climate change, evolutionary anthropology, and economics may well paint a self-portrait of the species as a victim of its selfish genes, of DNA that instructs us towards greed and exploitation no matter what, but history and anthropology are always reminding us of the variety of human values and forms of mutual aid.
Throughout The History Manifesto, economics and evolutionary biology are criticised for presenting a view of the future tainted by theories which history can demonstrate are based on false premises. Humanity has always had choices about the future. There are too many examples of creative collaboration in the past for us to submit to the depressing view that we are all sinners who must submit to an apocalyptic future where the poor will be punished and our planet savagely denuded.
We need to challenge the past if we are to build a different future. This is where counter-factual thinking plays a role. Guldi and Armitage share the work of geneticist Wes Jackson and mathematicians who are using counter-factual questions to explore questions of sustainability. What if there were no highways along which spare parts for a tractor could be sent? What if there were no highways and no airplanes? Would farmers still be able to use tractors? Guldi and Armitage offer a counterfactual question that many people have raised and which needs deep thought: “…what if protecting the planet requires rejecting prosperity”? (p. 33)
Micro-histories, observe Guldi and Armitage, concentrated on stories of victims rather than highlighting the work of people in the past who tried a different way of living to address the problems of their times. History shows us that the past was not uniform – buried therein we may find ideas we need today:
Those proliferating pasts and alternative societies point us to a horizon of alternative and proliferating possible futures. In conversations such as these, history speaks to economics and climate science about the diversity of past responses and future possibilities.
The second chapter of The History Manifesto reviews the recent past of history, the decline of the longue durée and the rise of the ‘short past’. The authors are critical of the myopic focus of the discipline over the last forty years which they argue has led to historians being sidelined in the critical public debates of this time and ignored by policy makers.
Yet, Guldi and Armitage recognise and acknowledge the value of the last forty years of work on the ‘short past’. “The micro-historians revolutionised historical writing about unions and racism, the nature of whiteness, and the production of history itself”, they observe (p. 45). In advocating the revival of the longue durée form of history the authors are not saying that the work on the ‘short past’ and micro-histories produced bad history and should be abandoned:
No scholar should argue for eliminating this important micro-work, the recovery of the subaltern and the patient sifting of the archives, from the work of history… historians can salvage the search for crucial pivots, turning-points, and clues, by which outstanding normal experience can illuminate the whole.
Rather, they warn of the need to connect this history to a broader context and for the historian to state the underlying purpose of their research. “[M]icro-history that fails to reconnect to larger narratives, and to state frankly what it hopes to overturn and what to uphold, may court antiquarianism”, they argue (p. 121).
‘Relevance’ is the watchword of twenty-first century university research, urged on by academic funding bodies in a number of countries. Guldi and Armitage are also urging historians to make their work more relevant to the concerns of the times in which they live.
It was not until the conclusion that Guldi and Armitage raised the issue that has concerned me and is the reason why I started writing this blog. If historians are to influence public debates they need to write in a way that will engage non-experts (p. 117). Historians already do deep research and profound analysis but the final step in historical work does not always get the attention it needs. Obscure use of words, tedious paragraphs and plodding narratives will not capture the public’s attention or inspire readers to break the fetters of old ways that currently prevent us from creating the world in which we want to live.
This blog is read by readers of many different backgrounds, teachers, librarians, historians, book reviewers, family historians and more. Their comments give some insight into what historians need to do to connect to the public. This is what a reader of this blog, who has degrees in criminology and law, says he wants from historians:
I want to have access to history in a way that I can digest without walking away feeling like I’ve just had a dictionary jammed down my throat or that I’m dumb.
That’s why I like your blog – you tell it to us in plain English like you are having a conversation with us. And it’s why I love Tony Robinson’s television programs – because he tells us stories that we can relate to. He takes history from being something boring to being alive and relevant today.”
Andrew Giles, comment on ‘Historians Ask: Who is our audience?‘, 24/7/2013
Many historians recognise the need to engage with the public and want to do it. As Guldi and Armitage note, there are a growing number of historians writing personal blogs and tweeting. Despite poor funding historians contribute to traditional media such as the excellent Australian history radio program, Hindsight (the victim of recent government budget cuts to the knowledge and cultural sector). Yet the performance criteria under which many academic historians work don’t credit this valuable contribution. Historians are under pressure from these performance criteria to be published in prestigious academic journals which are behind significant paywalls and to publish academic tomes. For many, the only way to consistently reach out to the public is to work in their free time with little real recognition from their employer. The authors don’t mention this issue – maybe their universities are more encouraging of this type of work?
While The History Manifesto is not directed at a general audience, the opening salvo eschews the language of academic obscurity:
A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short-term. We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterised by the shortage of long-term thinking.
This book demands to be noticed. It uses strong statements and does not hedge its conclusions. However at times it over-reaches in its bid to be provocative. The chapter about history, technology and big data is the most challenging section of the book. I will devote my next post to a review of this chapter so will only touch one aspect of it here.
‘War Between the Experts’ declares a section in this chapter. We have the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war in xyz country, the centenary of World War I, yet the authors feel the need to declare another war. In a book that is seeking to inject hope into a moribund world, that has devoted so many pages to convincing historians that we can help humanity find new ways of dealing with our issues, Guldi and Armitage revert to the tired-old language of violent competition and unnecessary conflict.
The arbitration of data is a role in which History departments of major research universities will almost certainly take a lead; it requires talents and training which no other discipline possesses.
The authors are not talking about ‘arbitration of data’ in the IT sense, but are proposing that history alone is capable of assessing all kinds of historical data from diverse sources, whether quantitative or qualitative. It is another opportunity for the authors to remind readers about the fundamental problems of the narratives produced by evolutionary biology and economics. While this section succeeds in its argument that historians should be at the table whenever historical data is being discussed, I step back from the implication that historians aspire to displace other disciplines and take over this work.
The authors observe that with the development of technology there may be changes in the backgrounds of future historians, “as time spent in other professional arenas or training in computer science will become a potential asset to the field” (p. 114). I am one of a number of historians who come from a different professional background. I originally trained as an accountant and loved studying macro-economics while at university, then I worked in public relations. I had worked for many years before I returned to university and fulfilled my life-long promise to myself to study history. It is probably because of the fact that I come from a different disciplinary background that I tired of the beating that some other disciplines take in this book.
I have no trouble accepting that economics and evolutionary biology need a major rethink. I saw the problems of economists becoming absorbed in the mathematical beauty of their work which clouded their ability to question the problematic underlying assumptions upon which it was based. Take one look at the long-running dispute between political economy and economics at the University of Sydney and you can see the extent of the problems caused by a discipline that has become beholden to one ideology or another.
Is economic thought dead? While neo-liberal economists dominate the policy field in many western countries, even the authors acknowledge the valuable work of the economist Thomas Picketty. The discipline is aware of the shortcomings of basic economic measures such as gross domestic product, that it does not include the labour of parents in the home and a whole host of other productive activities. First year economics students are taught about these issues.
Accounting is a closely related discipline to economics and there are signs from this field that a profound shift in economic thought may be in the offing. The journal of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia is the last place you would expect to read a critique of capitalism, but there it was on the front cover – “the future of capitalism: Is the party over?” The cover of the signature publication of a conservative profession featured a Mad Hatter’s tea party with Karl Marx at the table with Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. The article considered the perspectives of the major movements of economic thought in the twentieth century. It even included an interview with the secretary of the Australian Communist Alliance. I was astonished.
This May 2009 article could be dismissed as simply a knee-jerk reaction to the Global Financial Crisis, but something is definitely stirring in the profession. I am in the midst of reading Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White which explains how accountants (including those working in some of the largest global firms) are developing a new system of national and corporate accounting that better measures other forms of wealth including the natural environment. The author, Jane Gleeson-White, comes from an economics background. She starts the book with a chapter that reviews long history of wealth creation as depicted by Alvin Toffler in his book, The Third Wave. While the dominant strand of economics is flawed, at the edges there are a growing number of people who are rethinking the discipline.
There are many disciplines that have a legitimate claim to be experts in assessing historical data. Statisticians are not even mentioned in this book, but they are specifically trained to deal with quantitative data of all kinds. Accountants are also trained in dealing with historical quantitative data of a different sort. How can historians take the lead in discussions about quantitative data when so few historians receive training in quantitative methods?
We are in a new age and a feature of this age is collaboration. It is through collaboration between people of different skills and different cultures that great strides will be made. In universities great advances can be made by exploring beyond the silos of disciplines and departments. Inter-disciplinary collaboration is starting to occur and some exciting work is emerging.
A few historians have already recognised this. They have gravitated towards the new area of digital humanities. In this inclusive camp specialists in literature, history, anthropology, religious studies and the other disciplines in the humanities work together to explore the use of technology in humanities research. Guldi and Armitage draw on the work of digital humanists in The History Manifesto, especially in their ‘Big Data’ chapter.
Historians are just starting out in their exploration of big data. Quite rightly Guldi and Armitage see this as a field with big potential for historians. Hopefully we shall see historians joining more multi-disciplinary research teams in the future.
The most important contribution of The History Manifesto is that it urges historians to show the world that history demonstrates that humanity has free will to shape its own destiny. It presents history as a discipline of hope that can offer the world alternatives for the future. We can and need to shake off the chains of false ‘natural laws’ and tired old ideologies. Through history we can develop the confidence to boldly step forward.
This book’s mission is to revive the contract between historians and the world. Guldi and Armitage want to stimulate debate amongst historians about the direction of their discipline. In this it is succeeding as the number of blog posts and #historymanifesto tweets indicate. This book is provocative and each reader is bound to find some point of disagreement, but its overall message and the discussions it stimulates demonstrate the worth of this work.
The authors and publisher, Cambridge University Press, have demonstrated their desire to stimulate debate about the longue durée by making this book open access. If you are an historian you should read this 175 page book which you can easily download, or you can buy your copy.
Some time after publishing this post I have added the following reviews which contribute to the debate about this book:
- Mark Koyama, ‘A Review of the ‘History Manifesto’‘, Feburary 2015: This review critiques the discussion about economic history in The History Manifesto.
I have subsequently edited this post to correct my erroneous assertion that Guldi and Armitage did not refer to the field of digital humanities in the book. This field was mentioned once in chapter four and is referenced in the index.
As promised, in my next post, ‘The History Manifesto and Big Data‘, I discuss the ‘Big data and big questions’ chapter of The History Manifesto.
In ‘Reflecting on My Work, Big Data and The History Manifesto‘, I talk about my research about the beliefs of Australian soldiers in World War I, the challenges when faced with the millions of words that are in the soldier diaries that I am examining and what The History Manifesto has meant for my work.