Moving away from the crisis of short termism

How should historians speak truth to power and does it matter? These two questions were asked by Paul Kelly from the London School of Economics as he introduced a session on the The History Manifesto, an attempt by historians to claw back some of the influence on policy they have lost to economists.

A good manifesto, said David Armitage, a historian from Harvard and one of the authors of the manifesto, has a diagnosis, a proposal, and a call to mobilise. The diagnosis of The History Manifesto is that we have a “crisis of short termism.” Elections happen every three to five years. Companies must report their financial results every quarter. NGOs can rarely expect funding for more than three to five years. And the study of history itself has also become short term, with books and theses rarely dealing with more than a few years. “We live,” says the manifesto, “in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterised by the shortage of long-term thinking.”

The proposal of the manifesto is that at least some historians return to the long view, the longue durée invented by the French historian Fernand Braudel  in 1958. We need to do this because many of the major problems the world faces—climate change, growing inequalities, and global governance—are long term problems.

Armitage and his co-author Jo Guldi from Brown University hope to mobilise people by opening a debate that will not close off any discussion but will explore every avenue. Their book is published open access by Cambridge University Press, which is unusual within the humanities, and people can comment on every line or on the whole work. There is a blog, a forum, and a Twitter hashtag #historymanifesto.

Guldi explored “where are we right now” by looking back to 1968 when the longue durée “disappeared.” Economics became the dominant social science, and the historian public intellectuals of the 40s and 50s like R H Tawney and Lewis Mumford were replaced by technocratic economists. The surge in movements like civil rights and feminism created a “crisis in the humanities” as they tried to adjust. There was a collapse in the job market for people with PhDs, and the time frames of historians became short.

But since 2000 the world has changed again, said Guldi, who picked out three drivers of change. First is the rise in information  technology: everybody connected, the rise in big data, mash ups, peer to peer communication, and what was called Web 2.0. Secondly, there are imminent and long term political crises like climate change, rising inequalities, and global governance. Thirdly and more parochially, there is a questioning of the role of universities with the rise of phenomena like massive online open courses (MOOCs). We have, said Guldi, “to justify our existence.”

Simon Szreter, a historian from Cambridge and a member of the Health and Policy Group, thought that the manifesto needed to be written but wasn’t wholly convinced by the diagnosis. Economic historians, for example, often take a long view. And perhaps the antidote to the short term is not the long term but the medium term. He quoted the example of Britain between the 1830s and 1870s when there was globalisation and growing inequalities, as has been the case for the past 30 years, only for that phase to be replaced by more concern for equality. “History shows,” he said, “that nothing is inevitable.” The future remains open.

Isn’t it a problem that politics is short term whether you like it or not, asked Kelly, who never got a good answer. And, asked somebody in the audience, isn’t another problem with putting history and politics together that there are multiple histories, allowing politicians to chose the one that suits them best. There are, said Armitage, multiple pasts, and historians know that better than anybody, which also makes them the best futurists because there are multiple futures. But, said Szreter, policymakers hate the conclusion that “it’s all very complicated,” and historians who want to influence policy need to be bolder and “stick their necks out” in a way that may not feel comfortable.

The friend I went to the seminar with saw the whole things as an attempt by historians to grow their influence, which he thinks is doomed to fail. I’m not sure, but I am convinced that the creation of a better rather than worse world for our children and grandchildren depends urgently on our societies taking a longer view—and historians are surely one group who can contribute..

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