The History Manifesto: Need to Know the Past to Plan for the Future!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an essay by historians, David Armitage and Jo Guldi, calling for a “deep understanding of history” as a basis of planning for the future. Drawing on the theme offered by George Santyana that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, Armitage and Guldi make the case that a specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term. They posit:

“We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by a shortage of long-term thinking. Rising sea levels and other threats to our environment; mounting inequality; rotting infrastructure. Our culture lacks a long-term perspective.

Where can we turn for deep knowledge?

To history—the discipline and its subject matter….

What we hope for is a kind of history with a continuing role for microhistorical archival work embedded in a larger macro-story woven from secondary sources. The public future of the past is in the hands of historians, “if we are willing to look out of our study windows, and to think of history not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.” The words are those of the American historian J. Franklin Jameson, in 1912. They are urgently relevant today.

Once called upon to offer their advice on political development and land reform, the creation of the welfare state and urban reconstruction, historians, along with other humanists, have effectively ceded the public arena. To put the challenges we face in perspective, and to combat the short-termism of our time, we urgently need the wide-angle, long-range views that historians can provide.

Historians: There is a world to win. Before it is too late.”

This essay is based on Armitage and Guldi’s book, The History Manfesto, which is freely available for download from Cambridge University Press.


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