Conflicted Relationships: Historians and the Future

Historians generally have a strained relationship with the future.

And this doesn’t really make sense.

For one thing, because history repeats itself, historians can “predict” the future – and do so with far greater certainty than predictions for say the “end of the world.” Additionally, the future determines the past.

When asked to predict the future, historians typically respond with reminders of how they study the past based on evidence – that they are not in the business of predicting the future. I respond by saying is anybody actually, legitimately in the business of predicting the future? Clearly, no one knows exactly what is going to happen a split second from now. BUT, I would posit that historians (and philosophers and some scientists) are in the very best position to soundly predict the future. Precisely because of the reliance on evidence. Researchers know from all kinds of evidence what is likely and, in cases, certainly going to happen. (Various religions “predict” the future, too, but do so without any evidence outside of themselves.) 

Additionally, if we constantly keep an eye on the future, we can better understand or expect the next and next and next historiographic trends. For example, regardless of who is elected President of the United States next, it will have lasting implications on how the trajectory of United States History is taught and understood. Depending both on what values society has in say 20, 200, or 2000 years (if the Earth hasn’t been destroyed by then) and on what “big” events happen will determine whether or not the presidency of Barack Obama is a footnote, sentence, paragraph, or page in the survey textbooks, for example.

The future, both in immediate terms of 2016 onward and in terms of the “future” in say 1492 onward, helps remind us that nothing is certain, History always changes, and what becomes a significant event is unpredictable and illogical.

What would happen if we taught history courses with an eye toward implications for the future, an eye toward actually using the past to maybe change the future in a positive way?

Andrew Joseph Pegoda