How history forgot its role in public debate – David Armitage – Aeon

IvoryTowerThis is from Aeon, and it speaks about how one of the reasons that our world is getting screwed up is short-term thinking. This is something I’ve spoken a lot of, both on the blogs and in real life. The authors here posit that part of the reason is that historians have messed up their part of the mission.

It has long been fashionable to say that the globe is shrinking. In the wake of the telegraph, the steamship and the railway, thinkers from the late 19th century onwards often wrote of space and time being annihilated by new technologies. In our current age of jet travel and the internet, we often hear that the world is flat, and that we live in a global village. Time has also been compressed. Timespans ranging from a few months to a few years determine most formal planning and decision-making – by corporations, governments, non-governmental organisations and international bodies. Quarterly reporting by companies; electoral cycles of 18 months to seven years; planning horizons of one to five years: these are the usual temporal boundaries of our hot, crowded, and flattened little world. In the 1980s, this myopic vision found a name: short-termism.

Short-termism has no defenders. Everyone seems to be against it, and yet proponents of alternatives are also in short supply. One prominent opponent of short-termism is Stewart Brand, founder in the 1960s of the Whole Earth Catalog and a leading cyber-utopian ever since. Among his visionary projects is the Long Now Foundation, based in San Francisco and founded in what Brand and his fellow foundationeers call 01996 ‘to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years’. The extra zero alerts us to a longer timescale, not of decades or centuries but of millennia.

Looking forward into the future is also the strategy proposed by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, chaired by the former director-general of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, and convened under the aegis of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University. Last year, the Martin Commission issued its report, Now for the Long Term, ‘focusing on the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock which undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future’. Again, the thrust was forward-looking and firmly turned to the future.

What Brand and the Martin Commission have missed is the need to look deeper into the past as well as further into the future. There are no historians on the board of the Long Now Foundation, nor were there any among the global luminaries assembled on the Martin Commission. The Clock of the Long Now points forward for millennia but has roots barely decades long; few of the examples of global problems in Now for the Long Term came from before the 1940s. Short-termism about the past apparently afflicts even those who attack short-termism about the future. Yet if historians have been absent from these initiatives, they can’t blame only the futurologists for their fate.


The mission of the humanities is to transmit questions about value – and to question values – by testing traditions that build up over centuries and millennia. And 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.

The novelist Kingsley Amis satirised this tendency towards ever more microscopic specialisation among historians as early as 1954 in Lucky Jim, […]

Continue reading How history forgot its role in public debate – David Armitage – Aeon.

I think they make a reasonable case for this. If we can’t get a reasonable overview of the past from historians, where will we? I know there are exceptions, I know some of them, but in the main, business and government don’t look to the past for answers to the future.

But we must because we built the present on the shoulders of the past.

So how do we fix it? It’s going to take both historians, and those of us in the private sector, and ideally government as well but, I think it may be as important as any other thing in our society today. Want an example? How about how the US is handling Ebola compared to how we essentially eradicated Polio.

It’s time for the historians to get out of their ivory tower, and learn to help us in the real world. After all, they live here too.


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5 Responses to How history forgot its role in public debate – David Armitage – Aeon

  1. Having read looking to the future books of decades ago influenced my thinking early on:
    Future Shock
    Third Wave
    Hidden Persuaders


    • NEO says:

      Yep, I read them as well, and the author here is right, they had little grounding in accurate history, as I recall. Toffler was pretty good, overall, though


  2. Most of that (future books of decades ago) was pure junk! But personal divinity and godliness , what Calvin called “pietas” (piety)… “True piety does not consist in a fear which willingly indeed flees God’s judgment, but since it cannot escape is terrified. True piety consists rather in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as its fears and reverences him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death. And whoever have been endowed with this piety dare not fashion out of their own rashness any God for themselves. Rather, they seek from Him the knowledge of the true God, and conceive Him just as He shows and declares Himself to be.” (Catechism 1538, 2.) And here too I like what Augustine wrote in the City of God: “Virtue and vice are not the same, even if they undergo the same torment.” Indeed what we do with the doctrine of God Himself, does matter, … “divinity and godliness”!


  3. And btw, for those “theolog’s” out there that want to look at a more “Evidentialist” Apologetics, which of course surely includes the historical, I would recommend Stanley Grenz’s now classic book: Renewing The Center, Evangelical Theology In A Post-Theological Era, (2000, BridgePoint Book, Baker Academic). Note the Second Edition, (2006 paperback, has a Foreward by Brian McLaren, yes, the “emergent” – ugh! With an Aferword by John R. Franke). The book is well worth the read! Though I am closer to the presuppositional position myself. But, I have read almost everything by the onetime American, Bernard Ramm (1916-1992), which Grez goes into some depth with in the book. Grez died way too young, at 55 from a brain aneurysm. He was born a year younger than I, (1950), RIP!


    • *Grenz


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