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How Prognostication Will Save the Future of History

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Yesterday, I wrapped up my course The History of History for the semester. The History of History is a course in historiography and epistemology. Historiography translates as “the history of history,” and epistemology is the knowledge about knowledge. The course is based on Leopold von Ranke’s seminar model where the students attend lectures followed by seminars where they discuss specifically assigned texts, in this case about the creation of history as a profession, and how history is produced. The cap stone project is a research paper where the students answer the question: What kind of history would you like to see on offer in the year 2072?

I am asking the students to engage in what is called prognostication. Prognostication is a method to extrapolate a scenario into the future based on information available in the present. Prevalent in science, medicine, and to some extent in the social sciences, prognostication is rarely used in history.

It would seem self-evident why historians don’t use prognostication, and also why historians shouldn’t use prognostication. After all, historians study the past, not the future. Also, using the knowledge of the past to make predictions about the outcome of a specific situation is similar to alternative history writing, which in professional history writing fills no function. Moreover, just like Heraclitus stated that it’s not possible to step into the same river twice, there is no such thing as history repeating itself.

Although the use of prognostication in historical research is rare, I argue that there is reason to use prognostication in historiography.

The historical profession is at a crossroads. You could even go as far as saying that the current historical paradigm is breaking. History the way it has been written and by whom is changing, and it is changing fast. To some extent it is an issue of generational shifts, but also a widening and diversification of the profession. Established gatekeeping strategies are under fire and circumvented, much aided by the use of social media. Meanwhile, history departments in North America and Europe continue to see their funding slashed, if not cut altogether. The number of new permanent recruits to the profession are dwindling while the contingent work force is growing.

Put these factors together, and you get the perfect storm where history is changing on all fronts at the same time.

Meanwhile, university departments and higher education administrators are trying to read the signs of an uncertain future and falter. This is where prognostication in historiography comes in.

Prognostication in historiography turns the tables on how historiography is usually studied. Instead of researching how we got to where we are, we need to research where we are going. We do this by starting our research in the present, instead of ending it there. To do so, we need to ask the following questions:

  • What trends are we seeing in historical research today?
  • Who is conducting historical research today?
  • Where is this research taking place?
  • How is it financed?

But we also need to ask questions about how historical research is published.

  • Who publishes academic historical research?
  • Who gets their work published by those who publish historical research?
  • How are these publications financed?
  • Who buys these publications?

And finally, we need to ask questions about who history is for.

  • Who consumes history and why?
  • Who reads books about history?
  • What kind of books do they read?
  • What is the role of magazines, social media, and video platforms in the kind of history people consume?

Historian Lynn Hunt predicted in 2018 that in the future, the lines between academic historians and popular historians will be blurred. In 2020, Priyah Satia predicted that the future of history lies with the poets.

I agree with Hunt and Satia. Creating for an academic audience and a popular audience requires different skill sets, but more historians are capable of mastering both than there are historians presently doing it. Poets can use the words of historians to speak human truths that the strict methods of Quellenkritik and source criticism can’t convey.

So, if I were a student in my class, what kind of history would I want to see in 2072?

I want to see a history that is part of a new paradigm where the nation state is not the end all and be all of history.

I want to see a history where sub-disciplines such as women’s history, Black history, Latinx history, and Jewish history, have been abolished because they are no longer seen as outcrops from History; they are a part of it.

I want to see a widening of the historical profession, where LGBTQ scholars and scholars of color are safe.

I want to see more historians straddle the divide between academic history and popular history.

I want to see more historians on social media.

I want to see more poets, novelists, and comedians engaged in popular history.

I want to see more history books on sale in bookshops, whatever a bookshop might be.

I want to see a widening of the topics among the books that are on sale.

To sum it all up, the result of my prognostication is that history’s future depends on how many people we can reach. Because, if no one is there to engage with our research, does it even exist?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


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