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Reading that Changed my View of History: The History Manifesto

Posted by Scott Pollock
22 January 2015 - 1:13pm

While I read many pieces of history in 2014, the book that made me think the most about history was The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi & David Armitage. The authors make a series of interconnected arguments about the future of history as a discipline, and the public role historians could/should play.

The book begins with the claim that our contemporary society is plagued by short-term thinking (referred to by Guldi & Armitage as “short-termism”). There are many reasons for the rise of short-termism, such as the focus of businesses on quarterly cycles and politicians on upcoming elections, but Guldi & Armitage focus their discussion on the changing nature of university education, the declining influence of the humanities, and, most interestingly, on the changing nature of history as a discipline.

The authors argue that starting around the 1970s historians increasingly focused upon “the short past” (segments of the past around 35 years in length). As evidence of this, they cite a 2013 survey of 8,000 history dissertations written in the United States, which found that the average dissertation from the 1880s to the 1900s covered about 75 years, while by 1975 it had fallen to 35 years. While there is nothing wrong with a focus on the short past, the move by historians away from writing about the long durée has contributed, according to Guldi & Armitage, to increased fragmentation within the field and a retreat by historians from their role as teachers of the public.

This is particularly problematic at a time when many social issues would benefit from historical analysis. Many examples are used in the book to highlight this point, such as narratives regarding inequality. Discussions of inequality today tend to be dominated by one of two myths: 

1) The idea, drawn from economic anthropology, that inequality is an inherent part of our species and will thus never be eliminated.

2) The tendency of living standards to rise in capitalist democratic nations will eventually do away with the problem. This second narrative is strongly associated with the work of Simon Kunzets, a Harvard professor, who conducted extensive research on the rising living standards of Americans between the Great Depression and the 1960s. 

Both of these myths have been challenged by historical research. In particular Guldi & Armitage point to the recent work by Thomas Piketty, an economist who adopts a long durée approach in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which indicates that the post war era that Kunzets focused upon was an economically exceptional period, not a typical one, and that falling inequality was actually quite unusual under a capitalist system.

While the debate about inequality is far from settled, challenging the myths that exist around inequality (by academics like Piketty) helps to generate more insightful discussions.

The potential of this sort of thinking is not limited to historians. However, Guldi & Armitage argue that training as a historian helps to prepare individuals for this sort of analysis. In particular, they argue that “history’s particular tools for weighing data rest on several claims: noticing institutional bias in the data, thinking about where data come form, comparing data of different kinds, resisting the powerful pull of received mythology, and understanding that there are different kinds of cause” (p. 107-8). Because of the ability of historians to make use of these tools, Guldi & Armitage conclude their book with a call for the historians of the world to unite and return once again to their public role.

While many of the claims in The History Manifesto can be contested, and should be debated, the book raises many important questions about historical scholarship. In an era when we are bombarded by data and confounded by myths, it may indeed be time for historians to reengage with the public.

What have you read recently that changed your view of history?



Guldi, J., & Armitage, D. (2014). The history manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.