Future-Focused History is alive outside history class

It’s natural and it’s smart for humans to try to learn from past experience. We do so in virtually all fields of productive human endeavor except the field of history education. It’s beyond ironic that history may be the only intellectual discipline that fails to learn from history.

Although general principles of history—and the recurring patterns upon which they are based—are absent from the official curriculum taught to students in our schools and universities, they are alive and well in the world outside history class. Here are a few examples drawn from the work of prominent contemporary American writers.

In his book Collapse, Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for Guns, Germs, and Steel) Jared Diamond examines the demise of past human societies in places ranging from Easter Island in the Pacific to the American Southwest, and he identifies several recurring patterns that have contributed to societal breakdowns. He writes, “Yes, there are differences between the situation we face today and that faced by past peoples, but there are still enough similarities for us to be able to learn from the past.”

After an extensive examination of the historical record, Harvard’s Steven Pinker identified a pattern of declining violence in human societies since the middle ages. Says Pinker, “We need to discern patterns in the past, so we can know what to generalize to the predicaments of the present.”

The Applied History Project at Harvard University is warning of the “Thucydides Trap,” the tendency of a rising power to go to war with an established power. The Harvard group hopes that raising awareness of this principle of history (they call it a historical analogue) might help China and the United States to avoid a devastating future war between the two superpowers.

Stephen Kinzer is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of histories including Overthrow, All the Shah’s Men, and The Brothers. Kinzer has recognized recurring patterns surrounding the U.S. overthrow of 14 sovereign nations during the last century or so: Most were resource wars; most were disastrous for the target countries; and due to unintended consequences, most turned out badly for the United States as well.  Kinzer identifies this principle of history: “The fundamental reason why countries invade other countries…has not changed over the course of history. It is the same reason children fight in schoolyards. The stronger one wants what the weaker one has.”

In his book The Soul of America, another Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jon Meacham, describes a recurring pattern of fear and division that has afflicted American society at various times in the nation’s history, such as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and the McCarthy era. In these moments, according to Meacham, the better angels of our nature eventually prevailed. “We have managed,” he says, “to survive the crises and vicissitudes of history.”

It might bear mentioning that none of the respected authors who wrote these histories is a trained academic historian. Jon Meacham is the only professional historian in the group, but with his bachelor’s degree in history and his background in journalism, he lacks the PhD credential usually required for admission to the halls of academe. Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology and geography. Steven Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist. Graham Allison, director of the Harvard Applied History Project, is a political scientist. Steven Kinzer is a journalist.

Unlike academic historians, who shy away from identifying recurring themes and general principles of history, these authors appear to be perfectly comfortable with writing future-focused historical accounts. I suspect they see it as their duty.

The disconnect between academic historians and the needs of citizens has long been noticed and lamented, particularly by British historians who lived closely with the decidedly un-academic historical experiences of two terrible world wars. Near the end of World War II, influential military historian Liddell Hart bemoaned the fashion originated by historians in Germany of the 19th century to advocate the writing of what they claimed to be “purely scientific” histories.

“Any conclusions or generalizations were shunned, and any well-written books became suspect. What was the result? History became too dull to read and devoid of meaning. It became merely a subject for study by specialists.” (Why Don’t We Learn From History. 1944, 1970)

Writing nearly two decades later, the noted historian and history theorist E. H. Carr expressed regret that British and American historians had adopted the German model, which had produced

“a vast and growing mass of dry-as-dust factual histories, of minutely specialized monographs, of would-be historians knowing more and more about less and less, sunk without trace in an ocean of facts.” (What Is History? 1961)

J.H. Plumb of the University of Cambridge agreed; he decried the “arid desert of monographs” churned out by history writers. He said the study of history had become merely a pursuit “by professionals for professionals.” He wrote

“Professional historians have failed in their social purpose, which should be to explain to humanity the nature of its experience from the beginning of time….Generalizations must, it would seem, be put off until the buried facts, billions of them, are brought back into academic light.” (Crisis In the Humanities. 1964)

Plumb argued that the moral afflictions plaguing humanity—war, greed, prejudice, hatred—could be ended only through greater application of humanity’s rational powers, “That is, that it learns its lessons of history.” 

Years later, American historian and former president of the American Historical Association William H. McNeill voiced the following complaint to his fellow academic historians:

“History became intellectually precise only by becoming trivial as far as the interests of ordinary undergraduates and future citizens were concerned….Why should the American public be conned into paying our salaries if we have nothing to say to them?” (Beyond Western Civilization, 1977)

The gulf between the output of history’s practitioners and the needs of the public grew wider still when postmodernist theory overtook the academic world, including the field of history, in the latter part of the 20th century. By questioning the possibility of knowing the truth of anything, postmodernism further undermined any connection between historical study and knowledge useful to society.

As of 2016, the work of contemporary academic historians remained mired in minutiae according to historian Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University: “Some of it is so disconnected from our contemporary concerns that it is little better than the antiquarianism scoffed at by the philosophes 250 years ago.” As examples, Ferguson cited two history courses offered at Harvard University, where students learned about

“the habits of New York restaurant-goers in the 1870s or the makeup of various Caribbean ethnic groups in areas of Brooklyn that made up the West Indian Day Parade in the 1960s…the subject matter is so obscure that any hope for comparison or relevance is lost.” (Speech to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni)

Some gifted academic historians have risen above the constraints of the academic system to produce broader histories that may provide helpful insights into significant developments of the past or to expand our understanding of the human condition. Bravo to them.

But even these histories seldom identify recurring patterns or principles of history that might serve to inform judgment in the future. And if they were to do so, such useful historical knowledge would not be passed on to students in our institutions of education—because that’s not what they do.

So long as academic historians remain reluctant to recognize patterns and principles derived from history that can serve to inform future judgment in human affairs, society must of necessity seek this important historical knowledge elsewhere—perhaps from scientists, geographers, journalists, and perceptive observers from other fields.

So long as academic historians remain unwilling or unable to supply future-focused historical learning to the nation’s history students, history teachers must of necessity take on this important role for themselves.

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4 thoughts on “Future-Focused History is alive outside history class”

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