On The History Manifesto

It has been nearly a year since Jo Guldi and David Armitage published the History Manifesto in October 2014 (their article length version was published the prior April). In that time the open access publication has garnered significant attention- both laudatory and critical. The most notable and biting has been Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandel’s critique as part of the American Historical Review’s Interchange and final (for now) rejoinder.

Where the two sides most disagreed was the general direction of the historical profession and the time scales on which it works. Related to this, whether longer time scales raised the prominence of historians in public debates. It is now clear that Guldi and Armitage misread Ben Schmidt’s analysis of history dissertation timescales, which have actually increased since the “specialization” phase of the historical discipline. To their credit, they have made edits to certain footnotes and the original chart

There is also something to Guldi and Armitage’s argument that historians role as public intellectuals has declined over the past fifty years, despite Cohen and Mandel’s anecdotes about amici briefs in Lawrence v. Texas.  In addition to the cited data on mentions of economists vs historians in the New York Times, a review of op-ed pages shows how few historians sit among the legion of macroeconomists.

I also appreciate Cohen and Mandel’s argument that some historical questions impacting policy decisions may be answered most effectively at shorter timespans than hundreds of years. The most cited article in the Journal of Policy History is Susan Reverby’s study of Public Health Service syphilis experiments in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. Anecdotally, some of my favorites have been works that reviewed policies and phenomena on a longer scale. For example, the AHA brief in Obergefell v. Hodges and the works cited within it like Nancy Cott’s Public Vows examine the relationship between marriage and the state, showing that it has not been rigidly fixed. Armitage and Guldi suggest other ideal topics for long histories, like global governance, climate change, and economic inequality and indeed these are some of the most pressing public policy challenges of our time. Despite the arguments over time scale, all four scholars agreed that impacting policy was a noble goal for historians.

They are equally in agreement with the “usefulness” of digital techniques. What Cohen and Mandel don’t address and what I see as one of the strengths of The History Manifesto is that the nature of digital work rewards analysis of the long time spans. Most historical works over long periods of time generally rely primarily on secondary literature. A scholar can only visit so many archives and read so many letters, after all. With computational techniques, the barriers to longer histories are much lower. These techniques can still work on a microhistory level, allowing minute and important details to be scrutinized. The strongest works of digital history scroll between these micro and macro levels, providing the data and aggregate insights required by policy makers, while still describing the deep context of the best humanities work. As an example, I think of Visualizing Emancipation by Scott Nesbit and Ed Ayers. They simultaneously show the impact of Federal policy on slave emancipation and the agency of slaves as told by their acts of defiance against the Confederacy.

There are many significant challenges in using the new digital techniques, including paywalled digitization of sources, copyright, and the nature of humanities data. But the promise certainly exists for digital scholarship to behave in the ways that Guldi and Armitage suggest it will. I hardly have the experience to challenge either group of distinguished scholars on their analysis of twentieth century historiography and its impact on public policy. I also feel that there isn’t a specific “crisis of the humanities” within the University besides the general crises of the public funding for the University. Yet I do intend to heed Jo and David’s call. Digital techniques are uniquely suited to see across significant temporal and spatial scales and a deep contextualization can best inform how we develop and evaluate  future government policy.

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