What’s the Point of History?

Things are changing so quickly in our world. Perhaps the beginning of the tendency should be placed in the scientific revolution, which remains a fertile area for historical research (the recent works of Steven Weinberg and David Wooton suggest the excitement in the field, and its move beyond the mere listing of ‘discoveries’.) Not merely was this the beginning of a period of scientific discovery that has gone on without pause,  but it also saw the emergence of the expectation of continuous progress, such as no earlier generation knew. The concept is well illustrated by Moore’s Law, first formulated in 1965, according to which the number of transistors on a silicon chip will double every two years, and despite its not having any theoretical basis it continues to be true year after year. A perception of enhanced rate of change is not merely an idea entertained by people of a certain age who may feel increasingly out of the loop, but seems to be empirically true.

Steps currently being taken by the Australian government to develop a culture of innovation point in the same direction. That the future of the economy is thought to lie with ‘start-ups’ suggests an expectation that money is to be made by doing things that have never been done, doubtless with the American example in mind: five of the ten largest companies listed on Wall St did not exist in 1945. The shape of the new economy can be seen in the high-tech company Altassian, which had a market capitalization equal to that of Qantas on its first day of trade on Nasdaq.

Where does this leave us who delight in the study of the human past? It used to be easy to justify the study of History by pointing to the ways in which it allowed aspects of the contemporary world to be understood; medieval historians could justify the relevance of their period by pointing to the origins within it of parliaments, towns, universities and romantic love. But such a line of argument depended on an understanding of the world as having emerged from a past the understanding of which would allow a richer appreciation of the present. Now the world has become so orientated towards the future that a case argued along these lines had become much harder to make. I fear that History will follow Latin and Physics towards the margins of teaching and learning.


One comment

  • One point of history of science is that it shows – both in the past and in the present – that science has never been value-free but has been culturally and socially conditioned. This is true even of near-hard science such as biometrics, as shown is studies of the issue of “mental deficiency” c.1890-1950. Cultural values always intruded, even when it was statistics that were being analysed. We can expect this to continue in vital discourses such as genetic engineering, gene manipulation, “designer babies” and so on. One problem is that biological scientists – indeed scientists in general – are rarely knowledgeable about the history of their own discipline. Perhaps history of science should be compulsory for them. And also Ethics?

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