The Utility of Historical Perspective

by Dr. Kenneth Pomeranz, President, American Historical Association, December 2013
When asked why history is important, we often focus on background knowledge: Students should know why privacy is a particularly touchy issue for many Germans or why differences between Shi'a and Sunni Islam matter politically. And we often stress how history develops general skills that we share with other humanities and interpretive social sciences: close reading, critical thinking, communication skills, and so on. I endorse those claims, but also believe we should give equal emphasis to skills and knowledge more particular to history. For example, historians don't just do contextual reading more habitually than other disciplines, we create the context as we accumulate sources. You can read John Locke in a philosophy or political theory course, but you probably won't read in a way that asks questions such as: "Why was he writing from the Netherlands, and how might that matter? How were other people using the word 'freedom'"?

As this suggests, history is also unusual—­though not unique—­in its emphasis on juxtaposing very different kinds of materials, some of which were not intended to be dense with meaning. Historians might read biological or theological arguments about free will or political pamphlets for insight into the society that produced them, but they also look at that society's food prices, arrest records, dime novels, and brochures for new housing developments. Here I would emphasize not just the variety of interpretive skills such sources need, but the act of putting them together: When can I be confident that fewer reports of a miracle indicate less widespread belief in it? What other kinds of evidence would I need? It is interesting that in a recent survey of employers, "the location, organization, and evaluation of information from multiple sources [emphasis added]" was cited as one of the most-­needed skills—­trailing only "critical thinking," "communication," and other skills taught in many disciplines.

But what we most obviously emphasize more than other disciplines is change over time. While the importance of understanding how societies change over time may seem too obvious to mention, it's worth emphasizing that it involves distinctive skills, which are sometimes elided in nonhistorical approaches. Think, for instance, of models of equilibrium-­seeking markets, which might tell us that a "wrong" price caused by discrimination will be corrected, but not whether this will take days, years, or generations. I am reminded of my seatmate on a recent plane ride, an ardent charter school advocate who had clearly studied the issues. He was unmoved when I told him that most studies show charter schools perform worse than regular schools more often than they outperform them, because he knew that "eventually" competition would weed out the low performers. Only after a while did he concede the value of supplementing his model with concrete case studies of competition, and that the benefits of competition might emerge too slowly to compensate for undermining existing schools in the meantime. In short, thinking about time scales is less habitual or universal than we may think—­even when dealing with relatively measurable kinds of change occurring in fairly stable settings.

In fact, we might emphasize that we help students think not only about processes of change over time, but also about the interaction of many such processes occurring on different scales. What impact did the development of mechanized transportation have on horse-­drawn transport? Most quickly answer that it destroyed or marginalized it, as did eventually happen. But for roughly a century after the first railways appeared, demand for horse-­drawn transit grew--because cheap long-distance shipping meant that far more freight and people moved, and had to get to and from the railhead somehow. We can easily come up with many cases in which the short-­ and long-­run consequences of a development run in opposite directions. Historians teach that the question "What was the outcome?" involves a timeframe. There are many answers, each correct in different time scales and for different purposes.

Source: Excerpted, with editing, from “Recalling What We Do: Some Habits of Mind Historians Keep Hidden” by Dr. Kenneth Pomeranz, President, American Historical Association, December 2013