Why History Should Replace Economics in the 21st Century?

Annalee Newitz reviews this book called History Manefesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage.

The book points how historians lost their place to economists:

Fifty years ago, historians advised politicians and policy-makers. They helped chart the future of nations, by helping leaders learn from past mistakes in history. But then something changed, and we began making decisions based on economic principles rather than historical ones. The results were catastrophic.

According to historians David Armitage and Jo Guldi, authors of a new book called The History Manifesto, historians ceded authority to economists by losing their long view. They stopped studying broad stretches of time, refused to analyze long-term trends over centuries or even millennia. Instead, according to Armitage and Guldi, they gave in to “short-termism,” focusing on obscure moments in history that weren’t relevant to the public sphere.

Writing in Aeon, the authors explain:

The humanities departments of our universities should be the place to go for a long look in the rear-view mirror … within the humanities, it is the discipline of history that provides an antidote to short-termism, by giving pointers to the long future derived from knowledge of the deep past. Yet at least since the 1970s, most professional historians – that is, most historians holding doctorates in the field and teaching in universities or colleges – conducted most of their research on timescales of between five and 50 years …

A recent survey of some 8,000 history dissertations written in the US since the 1880s has shown that the average period covered in 1900 was about 75 years; by 1975, that had shrunk to about 30 … Moving to a Short Past, without an eye to action or a tilt towards the future, marked professional skill but also broke historians from their long-developed habit of informing the public sphere.

How econs gained:

At the same time, they write, economists began to move into the political arena.

In the 1970s, as historians became enchanted with microhistories, economists were expanding the reach of their discipline. Nations, states and cities began to plan for the future by consulting with economists whose prognostications were shaped by investment cycles rather than historical ones. The problem wasn’t so much with economics in general, but with using it as the only method for thinking about decision-making. Armitage and Guldi argue that economists delivered short-term solutions to the public, while historians retreated into the “Short Past,” rarely educating a public desperately in need of some long-term perspective.

This need has become particularly acute over the past decade, as long-term issues like climate change have come to the fore. It’s time, say Armitage and Guldi, for historians to start taking the long view of history again. And that means reclaiming their places as public figures who can help us understand the many pathways the future might take. After all, history is a vast dataset of choices and consequences. We should be learning from it.

The authors have also set a framework by which historians can make a comeback and complement economic thinking. The framework is – do history:

But Armitage and Guldi aren’t just in it for altruistic reasons. They want to reintroduce historians as what they call “statesmen,” and have nothing but disgust for non-academic historians whom they call “unaccredited writers” and “non-historians” who produce a “dirty longue durée.” They write, “In the last forty years, the public has embraced a series of proliferating myths about our long-term past and its meaning for the future, almost none of them formulated by professional historians.”

So the goal here isn’t just to replace a short-term economic view with a long-term historical one — it’s also to get jobs for professional historians. Given that academia has become such an unstable source of employment, it seems odd that they aren’t encouraging “non professional” historians to join them in their quest for the long view. After all, you can’t truly have public history if only “accredited” people are allowed to dispense it.

Armitage and Guldi also set up what many historians would call a false dichotomy between long view histories and short-term ones. The authors admit that short-term histories have allowed historians to explore “more original topics,” including “the experiences of communities – women, the enslaved, ethnic minorities, among others – that had been sidelined from more traditional histories.” Why not argue for a mixture of longue durée and short-term history, so that we have an understanding of both things? I imagine that, if pressed, Armitage and Guldi would admit that’s what’s needed. But for the purposes of a manifesto, they prefer to take a simplified rhetorical stance.

If we set aside these problems, and ignore the notion that one must be “accredited” in order to explore history, The History Manifesto is an intriguing clarion call for long-term thinking.

What can this blog say except give a big thumbs up and hope that both historians and society start valuing history..

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