Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reclaiming History for the Future

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.

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