The History Manifesto

This week we are studying the incredible debate surrounding The History Manifesto, by  Jo Guldi of Brown University and David Armitage of Harvard University. The primary argument of their manifesto is that our society needs to shift its focus from the “short termism” that we are accustomed to, and in turn move backwards to the long term thinking that was present in society a century or two ago. This short-termism is not just present in history, but in politics and economics as well. History does present a particular problem for the author’s as it is their field of study, one they wish to revolutionize. With the authors wishing to recapture the history of the longue durée, they argue that historians should have never moved past this stage. I personally fall right in the middle of the time-scale argument when I am studying memory. The event that is informing memory most definitely falls into the brand of micro-history, but the memory itself spans many decades. Still, a lifespan of study is considered too narrow for the authors of this book, something I find ridiculous. The significance of micro- and macro-histories are equally great, but the authors seem to equate great with long. The reviewers of The History Manifesto, Cohen and Mandler, most definitely agree on that. In their words, “Guldi and Armitage persistently equate long with significant.” (AHR Exchange 536) Both brands of history have equally as many pros and cons, I think it’s just a matter of how you utilize the history and other methodologies within them. One argument that I had discussed with some classmates was the idea that living in the technological age has created our crisis of short-termism by the reader being constantly overloaded with information. While I believe it can be particularly challenging to find the correct materials to study when there is so much available, I also believe that this age of technology is what has allowed the micro-histories to be so great! The availability of information has allowed unprecedented work to be completed, just look at Philip Curtin’s Census. This project has allowed a deeper understanding to be drawn from the Atlantic Slave Trade that many had never thought possible, but the collected and easily accessed information has brought a number of new analyses to a subject that many only superficially addressed before hand.

The availability of information seems to be the exact reason why Guldi and Armitage are calling for the return to the longue durée. The new trend of digital history has recently allowed historians to process an unbelievable amount of data through text mining and other methods. The work Dr. French did with Dr. Staley is a prime example of this, as is the work of Visualizing Emancipation. Both of these works analyze an incredible amount of information only possible through digital means, but each falls into what the authors would call short-termism. Thee scope of the projects are not hundreds of years, but instead focus on a little less than a century. The scope of these works are extremely impressive in my opinion, and offer the same benefits as a longue durée approach.

The arguments presented by Guldi and Armitage do not particularly move me as a historian, but instead reveal to me that they have a flawed understanding of the interaction of both long- and short-term histories. I believe that the long-term histories of the 1970s have informed the short-term ones of today invaluably. With new methodologies and theories on how history should be written, the long-term will always have new publishing, but these publishing’s may not be as vast a scope as the authors have wished. The scope of the longue durée has shortened itself in the age of information, instead of covering centuries, it instead covers decades. That is my opinion of the shifts in the field, and this is something I believe the authors are discounting.

 

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