- History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided.
— Konrad Adenauer
- God cannot alter the past, though historians can.
— Samuel Butler
For a group devoted to politics and philosophy, we don’t really talk much about the future. I thought trying to predict how future historians might judge us would be a good way to do so,
for two reasons. First, obviously we can try to imagine what the future might look like if we keep doing so little to address our many long-term problems and if present trends continue.
Present Trends –
Reeling off a list of our many current problems and the poor job we’re doing to address them makes the future look grim.
- Climate change, environmental damage, energy constraints.
- Rising inequality and erosion of the middle class and the American Dream.
- Dysfunctional political system and polarization.
- Aging population and problems with other demographic changes.
- Declining U.S. power, or at least a relative decline.
Etc. On the other hand, many positive trends may continue, even if they’ve been interrupted
- Fewer wars and fewer casualties in wars.
- Spreading rule of law, democracy and human rights
- Growing social and religious tolerance.
- Medical and other scientific advances.
- Improved communications and interconnectedness.
Future Lens –
What might historians think of all of this? Well, it depends on what we do/don’t do from here forwards, of course. But, historians in 2030 or 2050 will do just what we do when we look at the past: Judge the people in it by their own standards and through the lens of their own problems and prejudices. So, trying to assess how the future will judge us requires that we judge the future, or at least make some predictions about what values and attitudes will dominate their thinking.
Will they be liberal political values? Secular values? Religious ones? Whose perspective will dominate: White, Black, Latino? Southern or Northern? American or global? Eloi or Morlock?
Discussion Questions –
- How do historians look at the past? How do regular people do it?
- Can there be a single, objective “history?”
- What values/prejudices might future historians have? Why?
- What might stand out for them about our current:
— Problem solving /prevention?
- How do you think they will judge us and our times?
Not a lot this week.
- Thomas Friedman on how harshly the future might judge our neglect of our environmental
and energy problem.
- Cool essay on Metaphors for History.
- A sharp critique of “presentism,” of viewing the past solely through today’s social and political problems.