Making History Too Big To Fail?: The History Manifesto and the Return of History as Science

In The History Manifesto historians David Armitage and Jo Guldi add their voices to a growing body of literature on the humanities in crisis.[1] As the book’s title suggests, they focus on the field of history and its diminishing influence on public life. This descent into irrelevance is not the result of a changing public. Instead, academic historians’ embrace of short-term thinking has made the discipline unresponsive to the global crises of the day including wealth inequality and environmental degradation.

Despite historians’ retreat from their publics, Armitage and Guldi are hopeful for the resuscitation of publicly-minded history. They see two ways for historians to regain their audiences. First, historians need to reject short-termism and return to studying longue duree narratives. Looking back to earlier history (it seems here that Armitage and Guldi are thinking pre-industrial) will allow historians to show policymakers real alternatives to ingrained economic and political systems. They provide many examples of historians who have used the longue duree to challenge established institutions and systems including the Webbs, R.H. Tawney, and Eric Hobsbawm. Furthermore, Armitage and Guldi see an expansion of temporal scope as a useful counterpart to historians’ embrace of larger geographic areas. Just as transnational oceanic, continental, and comparative imperial histories have allowed historians to tell new stories about systems, institutions, and ideas, an expanded time scale would provide the same benefits. Their second solution is an embrace of “big data”. Armitage and Guldi believe historians are uniquely suited to effectively utilize big data because of their ability to make data meaningful through contextualization and narrative. “History has an important role to play in developing standards, techniques, and theories suited to the analysis of mutually incompatible datasets where a temporal element is crucial to making sense of causation and correlation” (104).

To Armitage and Guldi, a focus on the longue duree and an embrace of big data need to go hand-in-hand in combating short-termism. A focus on the long temporal scopes brings with it the inevitable problem of information overload. The tools of big data offer a solution to this problem by condensing and visualizing large datasets into manageable graphs, maps, and charts. They highlight the Google NGram viewer as a freely available, easy to use big data tool already being used by historians. Embrace of big data also offers historians a way to remain relevant in a technologically modernizing university. Armitage and Guldi recognize the crisis of the humanities extends to employment as well as larger social relevance. “If History departments train designers of tools and analysts of big data, they stand to manufacture students on the cutting edge of knowledge-making within and beyond the academy” (107).

While The History Manifesto presents itself as a revolutionary way of approaching novel problems facing contemporary history scholarship, its solutions are old ones. The crisis of the public intellectual has been a preoccupation of historians since at least the 1980s if not earlier. A lack of responsiveness to public needs is often viewed as an important explanation for the public intellectual’s demise. The entire discourse surrounding the “ivory tower” is a reflection on academics’ insecurities about their relationship to the larger public and perceived differences between subjects of scholarly interest and public needs. Even if historians embrace longue durees and big data it seems unlikely that the tension between scholarly freedom of inquiry and the public embrace of intellectuals will be resolved.

The tools proposed by Armitage and Guldi also have problems. As Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler have convincingly demonstrated, The History Manifesto’s data often doesn’t support its argument.[2] Historians have not retreated from longer temporal studies and embraced short-termism. Anecdotally, scholars held by Armitage and Guldi as exemplars of long-term thinking like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Charles Beard published many books examining short time periods. It’s also unclear how longue durees will lead to more relevant history scholarship. As has been pointed out by several others, some of the most politically engaged fields – notably the history of American capitalism – seem particularly plagued by short-termism but for the reason that the ascendency of neoliberalism is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The turn to big data represents another tried and true response by the history field in times of crisis: an appeal to science. An earlier history crisis in the mid-20th century provides a useful lens for understanding both the current crisis and the Armitage/Guldi response. After World War II, the expansion of social science funding and prestige put history in an undesirable position. While leading scholars like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had success as traditional narrative historians, younger academics and those in less established sub-disciplines were concerned about diminished influence and funding. An enterprising few, particularly those studying strategically important areas like the Soviet Union and China, began rebranding the discipline as a social science. These historians claimed that they were like scientists because they used data to find objective answers to historical questions.

They envisioned a substantive role in interdisciplinary social science in particular. In an interesting parallel to Armitage and Guldi, they claimed that historians were essential in contextualizing the findings of other social scientists. At Harvard, Washington, and Johns Hopkins (among others) interdisciplinary social science programs were established with substantial history components. At Johns Hopkins, Owen Lattimore led an interdisciplinary study on Xinjiang province in China. Its aim was to analyze its politics and role as a Chinese frontier, but a large part of the study was devoted to understanding how its history shaped its politics. These programs were incredibly successful at attracting funding and grew exponentially between 1945 and 1965. As the hierarchy of university disciplines shifted in the mid-20th century from a humanity-centered university toward one more in line with American national security interests (what Rebecca Lowen has called “the Cold War university”), history maintained high standing by appealing to science.[3]

The History Manifesto is a call to revolutionary action. It aims to persuade students and faculty to use the longue duree and new technology to seek broader audiences and answer bigger questions. These are noble and worthwhile goals. They are also not revolutionary. As Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler have shown, the longue duree never left and the short-termism of recent historical scholarship is a canard. The appeal to data is similarly an old tactic dressed up in new language and concepts. In an age where the value of scientific research is rarely questioned amid massive cuts to university budgets, it’s natural for historians to appeal to science in an effort to defend their discipline. It has worked in the past (to a certain extent) and the current enthusiasm around big data may allow it to succeed again. Still, in the spirit of Armitage and Guldi, I think it’s important not to become myopically focused on the current crisis. Instead, a deeper exploration of why history faces periodic methodological crises is necessary. It’s also necessary to define with greater precision what public engagement means for scholars. While size and scale are important metrics for gauging influence, extension without clear goals can not only compromise historians’ relations to a wider public, but can jeopardize our stature within the university as well.

[1] David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[2] This is not to say Cohen and Mandler’s response is unproblematic. They go too far in opposing Armitage and Guldi to the point of denying any sort of crisis in the humanities. Though their riposte was likely intended as a full-throated call for methodological pluralism, it often reads as a defense of the status quo.

[3] Rebecca S. Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

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