Uses of the Past: Legacies and Predictions

Profound reciprocal relationships exist between the past and future – relationships that guide and change “what happened.” The present is so infinitesimally small it serves no use other than for some advanced levels of mathematics and physics.

Two thoughts are on my mind in particular this evening. I will share those briefly for now. 

1) While scholars of enslavement, racism/colorism, and historical memory, for instance, are especially concerned with documented long-term legacies, much of the general public, especially those more to the Right on the United States political spectrum wholeheartedly deny that enslavement has real tangible and intangible psychological, political, and social legacies. Examples such as this illustrate the close nature of the past and future. 

This relationship is even more complex (and problematic), and the racialized and politicized agendas even more uncovered, when we consider other examples. “Remember the Alamo” is very popular in Texas and throughout the United States. People say the feelings–the excitement of bravery and creating a new nation–are still part of life today. There is no denying that historical memories associated with “Remember the Alamo” are still very real and important today. Given this, why are there debates about the on-going importance of enslavement? It is dishonest to say “Remember the Alamo,” “Forget Slavery.” 

Even older history associated with texts that constitute the Bible or the Quran clearly has much meaning and for sure has consequences for billions of people. George Washington, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights are all very much part of everyday life. No one says of these or similar things that it was 150 years ago and have no more significance! No one says, it was in the past, get over it. 

The past, all of it, influences the future. The future and more recent past influences the less recent past. 

2) I regularly disagree with other historians on somewhat major issues. Case-in-point being my article about History Repeating Itself, which has received over 6K hits. I also disagree, therefore, that historians should avoid “predicting the future.” Of course, none of us know exactly what is going to happen in 5 years, 50 years, or 500 years, but sound historical knowledge gives us much to go by. I also suggest that historians have an moral, ethical obligation to predict the future. Weathermen and Weatherwomen predict the weather to save lives; historians should and can/could predict the future to save lives, to help leaders make sound decisions, and to help society at larger understand what is happening (or likely to happen) and why. Our accuracy rate would probably be higher! And the likely scenarios, broadly speaking, are fairly limited when looking ahead just a couple of decades. Regardless, thinking about the future is an important thought exercise. 

History, the past and future, is also important for helping people and nations realize both their “significance” and “insignificance.” 

See also: Important Conversations: What Does it Mean to Come to Terms With the History of Slavery?


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Hi Andrew,

    The problem with a historian predicting the future is that historical knowledge–while extremely useful (and essential) for explaining change over time and how we got to today–doesn’t guarantee a clearer glimpse into the future. A historian’s predication in most cases is as good or bad as anyone else’s regardless of how much they know about what’s happened in the past. David Hume argued that we cannot presuppose that a sequence of events will occur in the same way that they have in the past because casual relations can only be found through induction, not reason or absolute truth.

    Take the recent police killings of African-American males throughout the U.S. by various white police officers. Historical knowledge of slavery, racism, state violence, and police practices can do a lot to inform one’s perspective about these recent events and alert us to ongoing problems connected to economic inequality, legal discrimination, and poor law enforcement practices. But how does a historian go about predicting the future of law enforcement practices and the protection of black lives? If a historian is ethically obligated to predict the future, then what are the consequences for getting the future wrong? Why should we discuss the future when we can’t even get the story straight about the past?

    I believe historians should do more to influence governmental policy, but they need to do so in the interest of informing society of the benefits of historical thinking–which includes considerations of context, nuance, contingency, multiple perspectives, and case studies that provide insight into the questions we have about contemporary society–not because historians know what the future holds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Nick,

      Thanks for your thoughts. When I say historians should predict the future, I don’t mean predicting in terms of very specific events. I’m just thinking about broad patterns. For example, absent of some kind of truly “radial” and transformative change, we can predict that discrimination against Black Men will continue to manifest and remanifest. I think specifically recognizing this is important and might help lead to some kind of true positive change.

      Also in terms of predicting the future: by looking at world History we know that nations and forms of government do not last forever. Thus, we should be prepared and/or recognize that the US will not last forever, possibly not much longer.

      To take another example, we know from past US history that when the rich don’t pay taxes everyone suffers. Thus, we can predict the future based on past practices (and human psychology / evolution).

      Have I persuaded you any? 😉

      Talk to you more soon.


  2. Please pardon a few typos on my part:

    predication = prediction
    casual = causal

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for clarifying your perspective, which helps me understand that you’re referring more to predicting broad patterns and trends rather than specific events.

    I think many historians already do the sort of “predicting” that you’re referring to. They don’t explicitly make a prediction per se, but they often imply through historical inquiry and interpretation that the force of events has pushed society into a certain direction. For example, Barbara and Karen Fields’ “Racecraft” explores the ways “United Statesians” (your term!) have used the false logic of race to explain social and economic inequality. They take this discussion all the way to the present and even criticize President Obama’s handling of the Wall St. banking financial crisis. They don’t make any predictions about the future, but you can’t help but leave the book thinking that a change in the way we talk about race is essential to the nation’s future.

    We should also be more precise about what we mean by “the future.” Two days, ten years, 100 years, 1,000 years?

    I like what Jacob Darwin Hamblin has to say on the topic of historians predicting the future. Check it out here:

    Liked by 1 person


  1. History, intertextuality, and how Barack Obama has influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not the other way around. | Andrew Joseph Pegoda, A.B.D.
%d bloggers like this: