“A history undergraduate places aside her work on an assignment for a few hours to surf the Web, and what she sees there worries her. It always troubles her, because her conscience keeps asking her how to connect her work with the world outside the university. She thinks of herself as a reformer, and corruption, pollution, and inequality rock her sense of justice. What can she do to learn about the levers of change, to talk to the public about how they work, to develop a cadre of students trained to think about such things? The answers that her teachers give can be summed up in one disappointing word: focus. Focus her questions; focus on her archival sources. University training, she will hear in many of her courses, is about developing professional expertise in analysing evidence, not answering the big questions. While sophistication with data about the past is well and good for learning to ask precise, academic questions and how to answer them, sometimes our student wonders when and how the big questions can be asked, and by whom.”
This familiar situation defines the quandry presented in Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto, which was published – online, open-access, and with opportunity to comment – earlier this month. Its content cannot be separated from this form; the medium is very much the message in this text.
Its argument can perhaps be summarised in 4 main, interrelated points:
1) There is a crisis of short-termism in contemporary society leading to pervasive negative effects (an inability to deal with the problems of climate change being the most-cited example);
2) The discipline of academic history has participated in shaping this perspective by narrowing its gaze in the last 40 years and abandoning ‘big questions’, the longue durée, and (thus) cutting itself off from relevant contributions to policy;
Then proposed remedy:
3) Historians need to embrace the emerging “new longue durée” – characterised by larger chronological timelines, the desire to trace trends, the use of big data and digital humanities, among other things;
4) Historians need to use this shifted perspective to reconnect to policy-makers in order to provide research that will address the “big questions”.
It is a controversial argument. Although historians and non-historians alike might nod along to the familiar mantra that historians ought to be more involved in policy questions, the suggestion that this is to be done by once again embracing anything that looks like ‘narratives’ may cause hesitation, fear, even outrage. As Guldi and Armitage acknowledge, though do not treat at length, narrative histories were abandoned for good reasons in the deconstructivist blaze of postmodernism. Are we ready to pick up the pieces and try again? Have we sufficiently learned our lesson?
Guldi and Armitage suggest that the stakes are too high not to try. As their send-off – “Historians of the world unite! There’s a world to win – before it’s too late” – suggests, the short-termist “crisis” that they speak of has dire consequences should it continue unchecked. Much of the book details the ways in which history could be/should be/hasn’t been used to address the variety of problems faced by contemporary society. Perhaps most importantly, they point to the critical “fluidity of thinking” and powerful views of human agency that can be gained from long-termist approaches. Looking at trends means looking at changes, and the important lesson that the status quo is contingent and malleable.
Beyond the broadening of temporal perspectives, the other suggestions that Guldi and Armitage make to remedy the irrelevance of history are the subject of a great deal of controversy, if only because they force historians to embrace emerging technologies and… *are you sitting down?*… MATH. In order to grapple with the age of big data, and to make historical research more accessible, historians need to embrace the tools of the digital humanities, especially digitising, graphing and mapping, and come up with new innovative ways to deal with the overabundance of data. Although Guldi and Armitage themselves use nGrams throughout their book, it is clear that this alone is not enough. Die-hard book lovers will also have trouble with the argument that “Just as books need correct temperature and humidity lest they decompose, so do digital documents require ongoing funding for their serves and maintenance for their bits”. Online is the answer. Or at least one of them.
Perhaps the most important argument of the book is one that is both explicitly stated, and implicitly underpinning the entire text. That is that temporality matters. It matters if we think short or long term, and, more subtly, it matters that we think of the issues The History Manifesto treats as “crises” which we must address “before it’s too late”. Those too are temporal claims, rhetorically powerful ones, that should be critically considered. As Guldi and Armitage show, to assess such claims requires a long-term historical assessment, and the marshalling of data. The same must be done to all such appeals to crises and impending doom — in such rhetoric lies some of the most troubling policy decisions of our recent history, as well as genuine imminent disasters which require action. Distinguishing one from the other is precisely the work that The History Manifesto asks us as historians to do, by relocating ourselves in our element.
“Historians can never shake off the element of time. It clogs and drags our studies, but it also defines them. It is the soil through which we dig, the element from which history itself springs”