Ta-Nehisi Coates tweets (approvingly, I think) that historians are “not the most hopeful bunch”.
I’ve said as much myself. Among the many problems with David Armitage and Jo Guldi’s The History Manifesto is the authors’ belief that historians once had a seat at the table of power and then lost it (in their view because we started being more like humanists and less like social scientists). Historians have played a crucial role in the making of nations and national identity since the end of the 19th Century, but we’ve never been especially welcome in smoke-filled rooms and think-tank boardrooms where policy wonks have plied their craft.
There are lots of reasons why it’s hard for historians to join those conversations in a way that doesn’t complicate or derail the assembly line. Our sense of the relationship between the passage of time and social or political action is slower, longer, more intricate. It’s hard to say with a straight face that if only you make this regulation or announce this initiative that something’s going to change right away. We know how rare it is for intention to match outcome. We’ve seen it all before. We know that when things change for the better, it’s often due most to people who are also not at the table of people earnestly proposing and implementing solutions. And so on.
Which might suggest that if you have students who want to change the world, directing them to the study of history is just going to be an endless parade of deflation and disappointment. Like almost all historians I know, I think that’s not true. There’s the obvious, frequently made point that while history may not provide a ready-made solution, it does provide a much richer, more complicated understanding of where we are and how we got to this point. Trying to act without a historical understanding is like trying to be a doctor who never does diagnosis. Maybe every once in a while you’ve got a patient in the emergency room where you don’t need to know what happened because it’s obvious, and all you need to do is act–staunch the bleeding, bandage the wound, amputate, restart the heart. Usually though you really need to know how it happened, and what it is that happened, if you want to do anything at all to help.
I’m going to suggest there’s another reason to study history if you want to do something to change the world, and it’s something that applies especially to the rising generation of activists. The specific content of historical study offers a diagnosis of the present, and it also often offers a sense of the alternate possibilities, the turns and contingencies that could shape the future. But cultivating a historical sensibility is also an important warning that any time you act, you’re joining a story that’s already in progress.
This is a warning that falls from the lips of older people with distressing ease, because even if we don’t study history, we’ve lived it. We know just from experience what’s come immediately before the present. That knowledge sometimes blinds us, both to how the present might be genuinely new or just about the degree to which the third (or more) time is the charm, that even if events unfold once again as they have in the past, that repetition is sometimes enough to carry weight of its own.
So be wary about the injunction to think about precedent, but still think about it, and in particular think about it if you want to fight to make a change in the world. Because it’s crucial to know whether other people have fought for that change before, and especially to know whether they’re fighting even now. And it’s equally crucial not to take the absence of apparent victory as a sign of their failure or insufficiency, as a justification for the next generation to just grab the steering wheel.
I’ve talked before at this blog about reading grant applications, for example, from recent undergraduates hoping to pursue a project in another country. Again and again, I’ve seen many of these applicants, especially those seeking to go to African countries, act as if they are the first person to ever think of tackling a given problem or issue in that country. As if there’s no one there who has ever done it, and as if there’s no one here who has ever gone there to do it. You could write this off as simply ugly Americanism, but it’s only a more specific example of a generally weak devotion to thinking historically, to putting one’s own story, one’s own aspirations, into motion.
In almost every cause or struggle, in almost every community and institution, there are people who have been trying to do what you think should be done. They’ve almost certainly learned some important things in the process, and very likely have more at stake in those struggles than you do if you’re a newcomer, a traveller, a visitor. Thinking historically is the key to remembering to look for those predecessors before you start, and it’s a key to remembering to take them seriously rather than just look them up as a kind of pro forma courtesy before you get back to doing your own thing.
Almost nothing genuinely begins with your own life. Rupture and newness are a very small (if important) part of human experience. Yes, being mindful that you’re just the latest chapter in an ongoing story is humbling and a bit inhibiting, and another reason for historians to not be “the most hopeful bunch”. But it is better to live in conscious humility than blithe confidence, at least if you genuinely think that progress is possible. There is no need to steal Sisyphus’ boulder just so you can start fresh from the bottom of the hill.