Tag Archives: history

Historians and progress, some further thoughts

A few weeks ago, I offered some thoughts about the tangled, mixed-up relationship we historians have with the idea of progress. My own entangled feelings include love for our modern gadgets and means of communication; worries about climate-change, atomic war, and all the other killer threats that lurk right around the corner; sadness at the human connections we’ve lost in the last few decades; delight in the easing of the puritanism, sexism, and racism that still ruled in the 1950s; fear that those achievements are about to be rolled back. And then, like most historians these days, I take cultural relativism seriously– meaning, in thinking about societies, my starting assumption is they’re all about equally successful in organizing themselves. Can you even have an idea of progress without the belief that some ways of living are just plain better than others?

My post talked about the strangeness of doing history in this post-idea-of-progress world. Of course we can still write about the past, and do it very well. But can we believe in the significance of what we’re doing? If we don’t believe the world is going anywhere in particular, does it matter all that much where it was a few hundred years ago? I quoted the historian E. H. Carr, who thought you actually couldn’t do history without believing in progress. A fair number of our students seem to agree with him– they’re very interested in the recent past, whose connections to their own lives they can see, but they have no sense that what happened during (say) the sixteenth century shaped their own lives today.

Thinking about that question of historians and progress got me thinking more than I usually do about why our sense of progress is so weak these days. I’ve come to think it’s a more interesting question than we usually imagine.

I mean, we’ve got all the usual suspects that explain cultural pessimism neatly lined up, the kind of forces that historians like to cite to explain (for instance) Europe’s dark mood after World War I.  Just in the last two decades, we’ve had wars, economic crises, genocides, destabilizing scientific discoveries. But the interesting thing is, these forces for doubt loomed even larger for previous generations, without cutting into their belief that the world was moving vigorously forward. My parents’ generation lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, atomic threats– our next door neighbor even built himself a backyward bomb shelter. Yet back in 1950s-ville everyone took “you can’t stop progress” as a slam-dunk life principle. It didn’t just come from the enthusiasts, either. People who hated the progress they were seeing shared the basic belief that it was inevitable.

So maybe we should consider the possibility that the external shocks — the wars, crises, and collective crimes– aren’t the whole story, maybe not even the main story. Maybe this is an area where we should highlight human agency, and look to political choices, made by identifiable groups of people, instead of big outside forces.

To see that side of things, think about what’s happening to today’s children and young adults. Almost nobody nowadays believes their kids will live as well as they do, and it’s likely things will be even worse for the following generation. We believe that because we see the mechanisms in action, in all those recently-installed measures that screw over the younger generations: we’ve ended low-cost higher education, crapified the public schools, shoved older folks’ health-care costs onto the healthy and young, ended workplace protections, created the monstrous student loan empires, and on and on.

So it’s not surprising we don’t believe in progress, despite all the miraculous inventions of the last few years– if you think life is going to be worse for the next generation than it is for us, that pretty much defines not believing in progress. But that disbelief isn’t a side effect of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or awareness of the Holocaust or the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 or the rise of China. It’s actually because we seem not to want progress in its most basic form, that of making young people better off than we are.

There’s a glimmer of hope in that conclusion, since collective decisions like these can be reversed. But this line of thought also raises a big historical question, that nobody seems to be asking these days:  why on earth are we mistreating the young people like this?

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Historians and progress

A few weeks ago, my seminar discussed E. H. Carr’s What is History? It’s another of those old books that I often ask my students to read, on grounds that voices from the past can shake up our understanding of the present. They tell us how the world was understood by smart people who didn’t share our assumptions about it.

Of course What is History? isn’t a real antique like The Communist Manifesto, which I also push on my students, for the same reason. What is History? came out a mere fifty-odd years ago, in 1961. But the issues it raises are stunningly relevant today, and I don’t know of anything that covers the problems of historical knowledge so well. Problems like, how can we know anything about the past, since it’s over and done with? and, how are we supposed to distinguish between important issues that are worth studying and pointless trivia? and, what’s a historical explanation, anyway? With only a little massaging, a lot of Carr’s 1961 wisdom can sound like it comes from a post-modern theorist in the English department.

But there’s one issue where Carr seems to speak to us from a distant planet: he was a firm believer in progress, in fact one of his chapters is titled “History As Progress,” and he meant it: “A society which has lost belief in its capacity to progress in the future will quickly cease to concern itself with progress in the past,” is one of his lines.  Another is, “Nor do I know how, without some such conception of progress, society can survive.”

Does anyone nowadays have that touchingly innocent belief that the world is actually getting better? Does anyone even think we know where the world is headed, whether for better or for worse? In that sense, an infinite gap stretches between us and 1961.

It’s pretty tempting to explain Carr’s optimism in biographical terms. He grew up just before the twentieth century’s great calamities, and from day 1 he belonged to the gentlemen’s club-style British elite: fancy schools, a top degree at Cambridge (in classics, no less), work in the Foreign Office and London journalism, and high-level academic positions. He had radical opinions, and viewed the Soviet Union with what today seems insane enthusiasm. But even that had a place in the British establishment of his era. It didn’t prevent him from writing editorials for the London Times or holding a fellowship at Bailiol College, Oxford, right at the top of the British establishment.

Sheltered in all those ways, you might think, of course Carr could take an Olympian view of the historical troubles around him, as mere speed bumps on the way to a brighter future. But then you look at some of the other important historical writing from his era, and an awful lot of it has that same sense of forward marching. My favorite example comes from the French historian Lucien Febvre, writing in France in 1942— possibly the single darkest year in the twentieth century. World War II had been going for three years, the Holocaust was beginning in earnest, the Germans occupied France, smart people still thought Hitler would win. In spite of which, Febvre’s whole work was predicated on the contrast between dark, confused, and frightened pre-modern societies and modern societies like his own, which enjoyed the benefits of science, rationality, and electric lighting. At least “in normal times,” as Febvre put it.  (For the specifics, you can look at my book Lost Worlds, which examines Febvre and other French social history types.)

Could there be a more poignant confession of faith in progress? Examples like Febvre make me think it’s the era that explains Carr’s faith in progress, not his posh social niche.

But more important, it’s made me wonder if he wasn’t on to something in linking that faith to a certain vision of history itself, maybe even to history with certain ambitions– just because it’s hard to find the strong historical vision of mid-twentieth-century writing in the history we write today. Of course we still have lots of wonderful historical writing, but we’ve mainly given up trying to connect our discoveries about the past with our visions about the future– perhaps because so few of us imagine we can see that future with any clarity.  The great historical works these days tend to be microscopic in focus, detailed examinations of moments, individuals, and practices.

So the Carr example makes it seem we historians face a bad choice. We can keep to a dubious idea of progress and use it to shape our historical thinking, or we can write history that’s disconnected from how we think the world is going– in other words, we can write fragments, with no conviction that these fit into some larger pattern, or that there actually is a larger pattern. Was Carr correct in thinking that we can’t write meaningful history without those convictions?

Sex, money, and the refusal of historical knowledge

My last post explored a baffling feature of our twenty-first-century world. Here we are deep into an era of hyper-free-market-ism, with all sorts of unexpected items coming up for sale; we’ve already brought capitalist entrepeneurship to our battlefields, and thoughtful writers are pushing for an open market in body parts like kidneys. And then, we’re also in a mostly post-puritan era, having mainstreamed various sex practices that horrified our parents, plus some they never even imagined.

So you’d think a free-market, anything-goes society like ours would look tolerantly on the sale of sex– yet in the zone where the market meets the sexualized body, it’s actually an age of crack-downs and high-intensity moral crusading. Countries that used to permit prostitution have reversed course and are working to stomp it out. Big philanthropic organizations whip up fears of sex trafficking, and their billboards pop up in towns across North America. Articles denounce old movies like “Pretty Woman” for glamorizing prostitution— in fact Google auto-completes the phrase before you’ve finished typing, and it generates 8,600 results.

Apparently the world has changed pretty significantly since 1990, when “Pretty Woman” was a box-office smash.

A situation like this (you might think) pretty much screams for the application of historical knowledge. After all, since the 1970s historians have produced a ton of terrific research on sex work itself and on all sorts of adjacent topics. We historians also think a lot about moments when values and practices undergo rapid change, as they seem to be doing these days.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from browsing the contemporary news about sex work; in fact you’d never guess historians ever got within ten-foot-pole reach of such topics. Most journalists don’t bother adding picturesque historical examples to their stories about the contemporary scene, and they apparently NEVER ask historians for any larger perspectives.

In other words, it’s another case that shows just how determined our society is not to learn from history. And by “our society,” I mostly don’t mean the evangelical yahoo sector, for whom history’s just a distraction; what counts for them are God’s eternal injunctions and probititions. No, the significant refusals come from the liberal-minded, humanistically-educated sorts who shape our policy discourses. Many of these folks must have studied some history in college– surely some were even history majors?– but you wouldn’t know it from the way they talk.

As an extreme example, consider the Harvard-educated New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who’s been a key player in the recent anti-sex-trafficking movement. Kristof likes on-the-scenes journalistic interventions, and he’s visited about 150 countries (he pretty much exemplifies the modern idea that keeping busy trumps thinking and reading about things). In the course of these jaunts, he’s rescued young prostitutes in Cambodia and India, by paying off brothel keepers, and he’s accompanied police raids on brothels in Thailand. The results have appeared not only in his Times columns and blog, but also in a documentary movie, and they’ve made him an international celebrity. Another prominent jouralist describes him as “the Indiana Jones of our generation of journalists.”

Of course these exploits have also included occasional pratfalls. Kristof was an enthusiastic booster for a “former prostitute” whose story proved fake, and he’s been shown to have used poor judgment in some other cases. Perhaps as a result, his Wikipedia page currently (September 27, 2015) makes no reference to his sex-trafficking stories.

But maybe pratfalls and mistakes are inevitable in investigations like these. What’s much weirder is the historical shadow that follows Kristof’s efforts. Because at least in his prostitution articles, Kristof reenacts almost almost flawlessly a famous nineteenth-century journalistic scoop. The historian Judith Walkowitz shows us the nineteenth-century original in her wonderful book City of Dreadful Delight, which examines sex and gender practices in late Victorian London. She devotes a couple of chapters to the reporter W. T. Stead, who braved the dangers of London slums, uncovered their vast networks of sex trafficking and child prostitution, and triumphantly rescued  one girl for 5 £.

At least that was his story, as he published it in the newspaper he edited. In fact (as Walkowitz’s patient research shows), just about every element in the story had been massaged, trimmed, and rebuilt so as to fit into prefabricated literary boxes. Many of those boxes came from nineteenth-century melodrama, whose stock characters reappear in Stead’s account: there’s an innocent girl under threat, an impoverished family that’s too weak to defend her, depraved, scheming rich men. And then there’s the journalist himself, as lone hero outsider fighting an evil system– partly by saving a specific girl, partly by shining journalistic light on the world’s dark corners.

Nowadays journalists travel farther to reach the world’s dark corners, but otherwise how different are Kristof’s stories? The brightly-colored characters, the plot line, and the dénouement are the same; just like Stead, Kristof even specifies the dollar amounts he shelled out in his rescue operations– it’s the kind of detail that added zing to a story in 1885 and still does today.

You might say, so what? Kristof’s not a scholar, and he’s not obliged to footnote what previous authorities said about his subject. Isn’t he performing a valuable service by drawing attention to evils and suffering? Why make a big deal about his recycled narratives?

The answer is, because it’s just stupid to base our understanding of the world and the people in it on the simplest categories of nineteenth-century fiction. Sex work may or may not be a bad thing, which may or may not deserve repression.  But it’s something real people undertake, responding to their real circumstances and actively choosing among their real, not-so-great options. Recycling nineteenth-century narratives in the twenty-first century guarantees we won’t even see those realities, let alone understand them or respond sensibly.

Historians like Walkowitz can help us see these realities in our own world– but only if the power players start listening.

Historians and irony, Part II

My last post talked about historians’ irony, which I presented as a way of approaching the past, a tendency not a specific interpretation. Irony-friendly historians tend to see people as having a limited handle on their circumstances, and even on their own intentions. Not knowing the world or ourselves very well, on this view, we humans regularly blunder into tragedy, generating processes we can’t control and outcomes we didn’t want. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.

I also suggested that irony of that kind is out of fashion nowadays. Not among all historians, and not 100 percent among any historians– as I said last time, we can never give it up altogether, because we know more than the people we study about how their stories turn out. But historians and irony are mostly on the outs right now, and that counts as something important about our era of historical writing. Open a recent history book, and you’re likely to encounter words like “contingency” and “agency.” Even late in the day, these words tell us, things could have gone differently, and individual decisions made a real difference. These words also tell us not to condescend to people in the past– not to view them as the helpless puppets of bigger forces, not to dismiss their efforts, hopes, and ideas, good and bad alike.

Things were REALLY different back in the mid-twentieth century, and they were still mostly different in the mid-seventies, when I got my PhD. In those days, the talk was all about long-term processes, societal changes, and the blindness of historical actors, and you found that talk pretty much everywhere in the profession, among Marxists and Freudians on the political left, modernization theorists and demographers in the middle, political historians on the right. These scholars mostly hated each other, but they agreed on a basic interpretive stance: big forces trumped individual wills.

So what happened? How did the history biz go from mainly-ironic to mainly-non-ironic? The question matters, because it touches on the ideological functions of history knowledge in our times. Mainly-ironic and mainly-non-ironic histories provide different lessons about how the world works.

Of course, some of the change just reflects our improving knowledge of the past. We talk more nowadays about contingency because we know so much more about the details of political change. We talk more about the agency of the downtrodden because we’ve studied them so much more closely– now we know that serfs, slaves, women, and other oppressed groups had their own weapons of small-scale resistance, even amidst terrible oppression. They couldn’t overturn the systems that enclosed them, but they could use what powers they had to carve out zones of relative freedom, in which they could live on their own terms.

And then, there’s what you might call the generational dialectic. Like most other intellectuals, we historians tend to fight with our intellectual parents– so if the mid-twentieth-century historians were all into big impersonal forces and longterm processes, it’s not surprising their successors looked to poke holes in their arguments, by pointing out all the contingencies and agency that the previous generation had missed. That’s one of the big ways our kind of knowledge advances, through criticism and debate. (For a discussion of this process as it works in a neighboring  discipline, see here.)

So there are plenty of reasons internal to the history profession that help account for irony’s ebb– and that’s without even mentioning the decay of Marxism, Freudianism, and all those other -isms that tried to explain individual behavior in terms of vast impersonal forces. Almost nobody finds those explanatory theories as persuasive as we once did, in the history department or anywhere else.

But having said all that, we’re left with an uncomfortable chronological juxtaposition: the historians’ turn to mainly-non-irony coincided with the circa-1980 neo-liberal turn in society at large, the cultural revolution symbolized by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. There’s a substantive juxtaposition as well: while we historians have been rediscovering agency among the downtrodden and freedom of maneuver among political actors, neo-liberal ideology has stressed individuals’ creativity and resourcefulness, their capacity to achieve happiness despite the structures that seem to imprison them. Unleashing market forces, getting people off welfare, reducing individuals’ reliance on public resources– these all start from the presumption that people have agency. They know what they’re doing, and they should be allowed to do it.

In other words, Edward Thompson’s warnings against “the enormous condescension of posterity” weirdly foreshadow various neo-con one-liners about how social programs and collective goods condescend to the disadvantaged. (For an example, check out George Will and George W. Bush talking about cultural “condescension.”)

Which of course is a pretty ironic thought, given that Thompson was a committed political activist and brilliant Marxist theorist. But if it could happen in the 1950s, it can happen now: intellectuals who hate each other and disagree on many specifics can nonetheless be teaching the same basic ideological lessons.

To me this suggests it may be time to rethink concepts like contingency and agency, or at least re-regulate our dosages. Maybe our alertness to agency has diminished our sensitivity to tragedy, to the ways in which circumstances really can entrap and grind down both individuals and whole communities. Maybe we need to think more about the long chains connecting specific political actions and constricting everyone’s freedom.

Maybe we historians need to stop being so damned optimistic!

 

Historians and irony, Part I

We historians have a long, intense, up-and-down relationship with irony, the kind that merits an “it’s complicated” tag. We argue with irony, shout, try going our own separate way– but the final break never comes, and eventually we and irony always wind up back in bed together. Like all stormy relationships, it’s worth some serious thought.  (Note for extra reading:  like pretty much any other historian who discusses irony, I’ve been hugely influenced by the great historian/critic Hayden White— when you have the time, check out his writing.)

Now, historians’ irony doesn’t quite track our standard contemporary uses of the word. It’s not about cliché hipsters saying things they don’t really mean, or about unexpected juxtapositions, like running into your ex at an awkward moment.

No, we historians go for the heavy-hitting version, as developed by the Ancient Greeks and exemplified by their ironist-in-chief Oedpius Rex. In the Greek play, you’ll remember, he’s a respected authority figure hot on the trail of a vicious killer– only to discover that he himself did the terrible deed, plus some other terrible deeds nobody even imagined. Like most of the Greek tragic stars, he thinks he’s in charge but really he’s clueless.

You can see how that kind of irony appeals to historians. After all, we spend a lot of our time studying people who misjudged their command of events– and anyway, we know the long-term story, how events played out after the instigators died. Most of the leaders who got Europe into World War I thought it would last a few weeks and benefit their countries. By 1918 four of the big player-states had been obliterated, and the ricochet damage was only beginning– Stalin, Hitler, the Great Depression, the atomic bomb, and a whole trail of other bad news can all be traced back to 1914.

That’s why our relationship to irony never makes it all the way to the divorce court. It’s basic to what we do.

But there are other sides to the relationship, and that’s where the shouting starts. We historians don’t just confront people’s ignorance of long-term consequences. There’s also the possibility they don’t understand what they’re doing while they’re doing it. That possibility takes lots of forms, and we encounter them in daily life as well as in the history books. There’s the psychological version, as when we explain tough-guy behavior (whether by a seventeenth-century king or twenty-first-century racists) in terms of childhood trauma or crises of masculinity. There’s the financial self-interest version, as when we believe political leaders subconsciously tailor their policies to their career needs.

And then there are the vast impersonal forces versions, what we might call ultra-irony, where historians see individuals as powerless against big processes of social change. That’s how the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy described the Napoleonic wars, and how the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described the advance of democracy— efforts to stop it just helped speed it up. Marxist and semi-Marxist historians have seen something similar in the great western revolutions. Those fighting tyrannical kings in 1640, 1776, and 1789 didn’t think they were helping establish global capitalism– many hated the whole idea of capitalism– but their policies had that effect all the same.

You can see why historians have such a fraught, high-voltage relationship with ultra-irony interpretations like these. On the one hand, sure– we all know that many social forces are bigger than we are; we laugh at those who try to stop new technologies or restore Victorian sex habits; we know we’re born into socio-cultural systems and can’t just opt out of them.

On the other hand, historical practice rests on evidence, documentation– and where do we find some president or union leader telling us he did it all because his childhood sucked? How do we document vast impersonal forces? Ironic interpretations require pushy readings of the documents– speculation, going beyond what the evidence tells us, inserting our own interpretive frameworks. Nothing makes us historians more jumpy.

There’s a deeper problem as well: interpretations like these diminish human dignity, by telling us that people in the past didn’t know what they were doing or even what they wanted to do. If we accept these interpretations, we deny agency to historical actors, belittle their ideas, dreams, and efforts, mock their honesty and intelligence. We dehumanize history– the human actors are the pawns, the vast impersonal forces run the game.

Those are serious criticisms, and they’ve been around since the nineteenth century.

But the interesting thing is, their persuasive force rises and falls over time. You’ll have a whole generation of historians who find ultra-irony persuasive and helpful; it feels right, and it seems to open up exciting new research questions. Then the tide shifts, and historians become more concerned with agency. They listen closely to historical actors’ own views of who they were and what they were doing.

By and large, the mid-twentieth century fell into Phase 1 of this cycle– it was a time when historians saw irony everywhere and paid lots of attention to big impersonal forces. Marxism was riding high, but so also were the other -isms: Freud-influenced historians saw unconscious drives pushing people to act as they did; Weberians saw the experience of modernization behind political and religious movements. “Underlying causes” were big, and we viewed participants’ own accounts with suspicion– we assumed they didn’t understand their own motives or circumstances.

But that changed in the 1970s, and for the past thirty years we’ve been deep in Phase 2, the no-irony phase. We’re concerned with taking historical actors seriously and with avoiding what a great Marxist historian called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” We believe in “agency”– meaning, from the top to the bottom of the social scale, people can help shape their own destinies.

What does it all mean? I have a few thoughts, but I’ll wait until the next post to lay them out– stay tuned!

Why study history, Monday update

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a terrific essay in The Atlantic about last week’s great National Prayer Breakfast Controversy.

Apparently Barack Obama had been asked to address this annual confab of Christian power-players, and in his remarks he suggested that today’s Islamic fundamentalists aren’t uniquely barbarous, crazy, or evil; in the course of history, Christians– even American Christians!!– had also occasionally killed, kidnapped, looted, and enslaved in the name of their God. Naturally, outrage ensued, with the Best In Class award going to a Virginia politician: Obama’s remarks, he explained afterward, were “‘the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.’

Now, I’m assuming readers here don’t need me to underline the ridiculousness of such talk. (On the other hand, the normally sensible Christian Science Monitor presents this as a debate with two more or less legitimate sides, so maybe the underlining is needed; if so, take it as given.)

But the great NPB Controversy does offer a worthwhile reminder of something else, which has been a big theme on this blog: our society needs historical study, and it needs the specific kinds of historical study that historians undertake. Meaning, it’s not enough just to look to the past for data about economic trends, or battlefield success, or the values that led some societies to develop stable democratic governments.

Economists, generals, and political scientists do all those things, sometimes usefully– but we also need more. We need the whole past, complete with its losers and victims, its crimes and craziness, its miseries.  We especially need to know about our own crimes, follies, and victims, as well as those of other people. That’s the kind of thing that historians dig up.

We need that kind of knowledge for the most obvious ethical and practical reasons. Even we non-Christians know it’s just wrong to view ourselves as fundamentally superior to other peoples, immune to their criminialities and fanaticisms. It also doesn’t work, as we Americans ought to have learned from our last fifteen years of foreign policy disasters. If we don’t want to learn humility for its own sake or to honor Jesus, how about we do it to avoid another fifteen years of expensive, bloody, planet-wrecking military failure?

The great NPB Controversy also illustrates a second thread running through these posts: we have a collective need for history of this kind, but we can’t expect private individuals to meet it, not unless we provide them way more collective support. The outraged prayer breakfasters didn’t hesitate to trash The Most Powerful Man On Earth ™–are they really going to hesitate to trash untenured academics saying the same thing in stronger terms?

That’s why we historians make a big mistake when we defend our enterprise in terms of its career-making benefits, all those skills that are supposed to get our students good jobs and bright futures. Those benefits exist, but along with them come career-endangering risks; the good jobs aren’t going to go to young people who’ve been accused of negativism by some southern politician or angry blogger.  Individualizing the virtues and rewards of historical study means drifting toward feel-good, accentuate-the-positive histories, the kind that will please employers– and it means that history will lose the central place it might have had in national debates.

The great NPB Controversy shows us that feel-good historical culture is already here– it’s time to push back.

More thoughts about Bill Gates and Big History

My last post commented on the enthusiasm and money that Bill Gates has been pouring into Big History, a way of teaching history that focuses on very, very long-term processes of change. There I mostly talked about the institutional sides of the story– what it means to have one not-very-well-informed rich guy making decisions about what everyone else should learn.

Here I want to talk content. I want to ask about the messages conveyed in a Big History approach to the past and the background assumptions that it seems to embody.

But before going any farther, readers should probably glance back at the consumer warning that’s at the top of this Opinions section. It explains that the opinions here are just that, opinions, not scholarship or value-neutral reporting, and that’s double extra true when it comes to Big History. I haven’t read up on the details or tried to see all the arguments in its favor. I haven’t looked into the pedagogy side either. It may be that Big History works great in classrooms full of teenagers– we’d still want to know whether it was worth teaching in the first place.

So today we’re skipping the nuances and subtleties, and getting straight to Big History’s Big Implications. What would it mean to make a Big History perspective the foundation of young people’s understanding of the past? David Christian, whose ideas so inspired Bill Gates, describes the intent as providing “a clear vision of humanity as a whole.” In a Guardian article, Gates himself is quoted as saying that the approach will help students “understand what it means to be human.” So what kind of answer is he funding?

One answer is, it’s a vision in which human beings don’t count for too much. In the Gates-funded version of Big History, we’re a speed bump on a long highway. We humans only showed up recently; relatively speaking, we’re not going to be here much longer, and the rest of the universe will get along just fine after we’re gone.

We also don’t have too much influence while we’re here, because so much of “what it means to be human” was fixed long ago: first by the geology, chemistry, and biology of the earth we inhabit, then by our earliest neuro-wiring as humans, for things like language and community life.

Within those parameters, there’s not much room for difference or transformation– the gaps separating us 21st-century Americans from, say, ancient Egyptians count for much less than the basics we share. Seen within the 250,000-year history of humanity, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Amy Heckerling might as well be the same person. Ditto for Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Mary Shelley, Karl Marx, and Rosalind Franklin.

You get my drift: Big History sure sounds like a training in resignation to all the inevitabilities that have built up over the last few hundred thousand years, not to mention the millions of years before we humans arrived. The changes that matter are bound up with enormous processes that we can’t do much about, and whatever we humans can achieve doesn’t match up against all that we can’t change. Bringing fast food workers’ wages up to $15 from the current $8?  Does that issue really amount to a hill of beans from the Big History perspective? Workers and activists should save themselves a lot of heartbreak and just accept the world as it is.

Is it unkind to suggest that a billionaire in today’s America might think that’s a great lesson to teach?