Uncertainty, Humility, and Visions of the Future

Allen Mikaelian, March 2013

"In general the teachers in History are the most jingoistic in the universities. Their whole lives are spent in the past and it is difficult for them to have a vision of the future or even of the present."

This quotation—it's one of those I came across in an archive that might not have anything to do with my research but couldn't be passed up—is from notes of an April 1914 conversation between three activists associated with the World Peace Foundation (WPF) on how to turn universities into manufactories of a public opinion favorable to the peace movement.

Most social science and humanities disciplines, these activists felt, were much more favorable to incorporating peace propaganda into their teaching. Historians, on the other hand, were too obsessed with conflict and nationalism to be useful to the peace movement. Despite having made some inroads at universities like Columbia, thanks to the help of Charles Beard, the WPF felt that historians were unlikely to become allies in bringing about world peace—which these activists were utterly convinced was right around the corner.

The peace activists were of course thinking of the historians who used history primarily to support national myths. These were historians who focused almost exclusively on politics and war; they wrote of their subject matter in terms of a clear set of winners and losers, and this gave them a sense of certainty in their judgments about the past and what it told us about the life of the nation.

Several essays in this issue and recent issues of Perspectives on History illustrate how far we are from that sense of certainty. Kenneth Pomeranz opens this issue with an appeal for the benefits of "making the familiar strange" even as historians close the distance between the present and the past. Historians, Pomeranz notes, willingly accept that their conclusions are provisional.

This issue's essay by David Lowenthal makes the case that historical truth is inevitably frail, with uncertainty injected into history through ever-present errors of practice and errors of judgment: "we are perforce fallible not only epistemically but also personally, subjugated not only to our slippery subject matter but to our slippery selves."

And then there is James Oakes's September 2012 essay in Perspectives, "On Changing My Mind," an engaging look at how historians "don't just revise other scholars; we revise ourselves." As Oakes notes, "I try not to be overly committed to anything I've put into print. Print captures my thinking at the moment of publication. Sometimes all it takes is evidence, new or newly persuasive evidence, to get me to change my mind."

Lowenthal's essay adds "human frailty" to the reasons outlined by Oakes for changing one's mind, but both essays add humility as a necessary ingredient for the "Art of History," the series in which both essays appear. Humility, the embrace of provisional conclusions, and the knowledge that a better argument than the one just made is almost certain to come along—all these elements make it difficult for historians to be very jingoistic, or to be appropriated by a single movement, even one as laudable as world peace.

But are historians, whose "whole lives are spent in the past," less likely to have a vision of the future or even the present? The idea that historians are stuck in the past and unwilling or unable to see the future, adapt new methods, devise ways of seeing, or use new technologies still comes up with surprising regularity. The Ithaka S+R report on historical research methods, covered in the February 2012 Perspectives, makes an analogous claim. Early massive open online course (MOOC) adopters have painted historians as slow to move into this space, and Jeremy Adelman, writing in this issue, notes that it's true that history, and the humanities in general, don't appear in many MOOC menus.

But is it the case that because historians' research interests are in the past, they are inherently conservative when it comes to trying new things? Certainly the past does have its appeal, and it is an ever-present temptation to retreat there. Susan Ferber, writing in this issue, is more honest than many historians about the romantic appeal of the past; one thing we can take from her essay is that it sometimes takes a severe shock—in this case a devastating hurricane—to disrupt being charmed by a life lived in the past.

The coming of the MOOCs may provide historians with such a shock. Nothing is simple in this new realm; many of the most heated arguments about MOOCs are, in my opinion, about much bigger issues than this platform alone. As John McNeill notes in this issue, nobody knows whether they will push historical research into a dark age or a golden age. As Adelman argues in his essay, everything about teaching history on this platform is highly experimental.

With these two essays on MOOCs, Perspectives on History is coming in a bit late, admittedly, to a conversation that has been steadily proliferating and heating up elsewhere. We wanted to offer essays that could bring something new to the discussion—a first-person account by a history professor on his first MOOC, and an exploratory essay on what MOOCs might mean for historical research. We also wanted essays that specifically focused on what MOOCs might mean to historians. We know that in no way have we come close to representing the range of viewpoints out there, but we also hope that readers will respond to these forays with letters, e-mails, blog posts, and articles submitted to this magazine.

Historians are, as readers of this magazine know, perfectly capable of having a "vision of the future." As Pomeranz writes, even the specialist living deep in some obscure corner of the human past can teach "very useful skills … for dealing effectively with incomplete knowledge of past, present, and future." The arrival and rapid adoption of MOOCs suggest that this would be a good time to put historians' visions of the future on display.

Allen Mikaelian is editor of Perspectives on History.