The Chronicle of Higher Education
October 16th, 2014
A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term. 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.
Putting long-termism into practice is hard. When we peer into the
future, instead of facts, we routinely resort to theories. We have been
told, for instance, that there is an end to history and that the world
is hot, flat, and crowded. We have read that all human events are
reducible to models derived from physics, translated by economics or
political science, or explained by a theory of evolution that looks to
our hunter-gather ancestors. Popularizations built on the work of social scientists
apply economic models to sumo wrestlers and Paleolithic anthropology to
customs of dating. The lessons are repeated on the news, and the
proponents are elevated to the status of public intellectuals. Their
insights seem to point to unchanging levers that govern our world. Even
those who inspect the future peer only shortsightedly into the past.