Magazine article History Today

Bending the Arc of History: By Taking a Rational, Global Overview of the Past, Historians Can Better Understand the Challenges Facing Humanity

Magazine article History Today

Bending the Arc of History: By Taking a Rational, Global Overview of the Past, Historians Can Better Understand the Challenges Facing Humanity

Article excerpt

At the beginning of this year, the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that it had detected 'signs of a growing political will to tackle the two gravest threats to civilisation--the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change--sufficient to move their Doomsday Clock back from five to six minutes before the fatal hour. For the first time ever, they asserted,' industrialised and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable: And for the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, they claimed,' leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to reduce vastly their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material: Thus, 'we are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons'.

How should the custodians of 'the arc of history' react to the Board's encouragement for 'scientists to continue their engagement with these issues and make their analysis widely known'? There will be a wide variety of responses, with academics of all hues insisting that the challenge has nothing to do with them. But there could also be a development of the study of history as 'science'. Many historians would shrink from this, holding to the view that the richness and variety of the human experience would be lost in any consideration of their subject in this way.

Undoubtedly, the distortions of Marxism-Leninism gave history as science a bad name. More generally, there is the linguistic problem, the word 'science' having a much more restricted meaning in English than in, say, French or German, which both talk without difficulty not only of natural and social but also of 'humane' sciences. Language reflects convention and tradition and Britain has been cut off from history as a science by differing approaches.

This may be illustrated by looking at reactions of historians to earlier crises. In 1919, just after the 'war to end all wars', G.M. Trevelyan wrote about England's history in confident style, rejecting French as well as German approaches and insisting that the past's prime purpose was to educate Englishmen. 'We must be ourselves; he declared, observing that 'Englishmen need no longer apologise for the free traditions of their own history and of their own great national historians', especially 'seeing what a dance German "scientific" history has led the nation that looked to it for political prophecy and guidance'.

In contrast, the leading Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, who spent much of the First World War in prison, gave a lecture in 1923 entitled 'On the Comparative Method in History'. From 1914 to 1918, he asserted, the belligerents had requisitioned for their own use two 'sciences' in particular--chemistry and history. One had provided explosives and gas, the other pretexts, justifications and excuses. But their fate had differed: chemistry could serve armies and preserve its nature, even make precious discoveries, while history lost its essential qualities of criticism and impartiality, as the morale of one's own people had to be maintained by, among other methods, academic attacks on the enemy.

Such distortions had served only to demonstrate the lack of a scientific basis for the excesses of nationalism, for racial theories. There was no such phenomenon as pure race; various peoples had developed at different rates not because of racial characteristics but because of different circumstances. Nevertheless, they all went through comparable stages and the only way to understand their individuality was to compare their experiences. Only through such comparative methods was it possible to achieve 'scientific' knowledge.


No chemist could know all chemistry, still less all nature, Pirenne continued. Specialisation was therefore as necessary in chemistry as in history, but in both from a point of view that was universal, giving an overview. …

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