23 February 2018

Our world is changing. It's time for historians to explain why

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Cormac Shine (MHP ’17) is a societal researcher at UBS think tank and historian. He writes in a personal capacity.

Historians need to ditch their aversion to public discourse. By looking to the past, they can teach us about our future.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a surge in civic engagement after decades of apathy. Just as established media outlets have a renewed sense of purpose, in academia, too, social scientists find themselves publicly confronting the social dynamics and technological disruptions that have led to our changing politics and society.

Cormac Shine (MHP ’17)_IHEID_Alumni.jpgBut historians are almost entirely absent from this conversation, barring the efforts of Yuval Noah Harari and a few others. In their manifesto for historians, Jo Guldi and David Armitage lament that experts in the field are reluctant to engage with contemporary debates on an ambitious scale, with many favouring narrow specialisation, and arcane disputes far removed from the concerns of society in the present and future.

This irrelevance is largely self-inflicted. Too many historians still think that engaging with the public means they’re compromising the integrity of the discipline. As a result, many practitioners have passed the opportunity to shape the narrative over to other disciplines.

Particularly before the financial crisis of 2008, economists dominated this space. They wrote misleading op-ed pages offering a smokescreen of dubious, number-induced objectivity that mostly lacked meaningful historical perspective. Yet many now acknowledge that their discipline could learn a thing or two from the nuanced critical methods deployed by the humanities.

"Historians are uniquely placed to help debate and define the contours of society"

Today, as we grapple with the challenges posed by AI, automation, climate change, and a changing geopolitical landscape, we look as much to philosophers and technologists for guidance as to economists. But historians have a role too. They are uniquely placed to help debate and define the contours of society as these challenges reshape our world, providing much-needed perspective and nuance.

Historians are skilled in building and interpreting varied narratives dealing with change over time. Yet still too many are reluctant to attempt comparison of any kind between past phenomena and contemporary concerns. Far from being irreconcilable opposites, the past and future should be viewed as two sides of the same coin

Responsibly engaging with the future as a historian does not mean making bold predictions, which is always a dangerous enterprise – just ask Francis Fukuyama, who declared liberal capitalist democracy to represent the “end of history”. David Staley, one of the few historians to look at the future from a historical perspective, instead recommends drawing on context, imparting lessons from the past, and deploying techniques such as scenario building, which analyses historic trends and events to understand likely future situations.

Similarly, historians can help widen the reference points for policymakers. Political actors of all stripes barely refer to past experience in making momentous decisions, or have done so only with extremely limited timeframes and clumsy stereotypes.

For all his unpopularity among fellow historians, Niall Ferguson’s latest mission, to teach Silicon Valley that networks shaped the world long before the dawn of Facebook and Twitter, is exactly the kind of grand narrative historians should tackle. Equally, the recent 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses has shown that individuals, enabled by technology, challenged hierarchies and disrupted social order long before the current era of fake news. This kind of informed comparison should be embraced, not shunned, by historians.

The power of the humanities is that they allow us to reflect on what society is and should be, in a way that other disciplines cannot. Understanding the unquantifiable essence of what it means to be human will only increase in importance as AI and other technologies potentially reshape the structures of daily life in the near future. Governments around the world may be prioritising Stem subjects and humanities department budgets may still be shrinking, but historians should nevertheless grasp this opportunity to improve public discourse, and jump headfirst into the debate.

Original article by Cormac Shine in The Guardian, 18.1.2018

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