John Green asks: How young is history?




Well I guess I wondered into something I am unaware of, where the “myth of progress” has more baggage due to it being a thing - not just a general statement.

I agree with everything you said, and even tried to temper my statements that progress isn’t universal or evenly distributed. But overall I see progress as a species across the board, and while uneven, most everyone has moved up. Heck I would say the pockets of people who are living in what we would consider “primitive” means are still enjoying some modern conveniences, even if it is as simple as metal cooking pots, and knowing basic hygiene methods.

But when you said this:

I assume this idea means that some think progress is natural and per-ordained, which I would disagree with. It is something that has to be worked at. And it COULD all come crashing down from events beyond our control or enough people tearing shit up to cause a major set back (aka WWIII).


I would argue that conveniences are not the same thing as progress, though. One can have a refrigerator and a washing machine, and still live an oppressed life. The technologies that had already made their way into German life did not magically dissolve when the Nazis took power and the Soviets worked hard to bring modern technologies to the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.

So we agree for sure on that point. Some would argue it HAS come crashing down around us today. But YMMV! :wink:


Well conveniences are more than just conveniences when you add it up and they allow you to do different things. A cooking pot that never breaks and can handle higher heat will help people keep fed regularly. A simple metal tool that does the job and doesn’t have to be constantly replaced will save days, maybe months of time over it’s life span of use.

The birth of agriculture made it so we didn’t have to spend a majority or our lives looking for food, and could concentrate on other things. And then as civilization arose, it allowed for people to specialize in skills, (I mean, I know you know all of that.)

But yeah, one could be fed and well cared for and not for want of necessities, and still be oppressed. Heck, Communist Russia was very oppressive, yet they did help mankind progress with some of their science and techonlogy. I would even argue their socialist art style contributed some. ETA - progress can be measured in many different ways.

I think it is sort of how tight you want to focus. Or like HDTV and SDTV. On SDTV everything looks fine. HD TV and you start seeing all the little imperfections easier.

So I don’t know what others are saying about progress, and while I think we are better off than ever, I am not delusional in thinking there aren’t a lot of places that are still bad and we have a long, long way to go.

Some times I feel that way, like yesterday when I had to pay $50 to PICK UP a prescription SCRIPT (the paper) and kill a whole night running around getting it filled, and kid fed with test questions reviewed.

But then she talks to her mom over FB messenger video and she can see her 1000 miles away, and that is pretty cool. :wink:


Sure… but what happens when the price of cooking pots go down, but the quality of cooking pots also go down? Same for the tool? How to we characterize the ability of more people to buy certain things but those things not being of similar quality across the board? [quote=“Mister44, post:24, topic:93208”]
The birth of agriculture made it so we didn’t have to spend a majority or our lives looking for food, and could concentrate on other things.

I’m not entirely up on the research, but there is an argument that the rise of agriculture actually meant more work, not less. And also the rise of the beginning of processing food meant our oral hygiene took a nose dive. Civilization also brought about the rise of hierarchies based on the oppression of some for the benefit of others (with cities being populated by people who did not make the food, but depended on people outside the cities who make the food, and that to get them to bring you food, you had to work some sort of oppressive system onto them). These are all points of debate among people who study these historical periods (and pre-historical periods) and I’m certainly not one of those who thinks of primitivism in some glowing, utopian terms. But I do think it’s important to note that first, we have no real idea about the period before writing in understanding how people experienced their daily lives (and even once writing evolved, most of it was done by elite people, not the masses - which is a novel development in history - that we have such access to the daily lives of individuals). Second, whether or not something is oppressive depends on who you ask and the sources you are looking at. If we go back to the example of the nazis, for sure, it was oppressive for a number of people in Germany and then in the rest of Europe. But the people who benefitted from the regime did not see it as oppressive and might have even felt liberated by the nazis.[quote=“Mister44, post:24, topic:93208”]
Heck, Communist Russia was very oppressive, yet they did help mankind progress with some of their science and techonlogy.

Yep. That’s the truth. [quote=“Mister44, post:24, topic:93208”]
progress can be measured in many different ways.

YES! I think this is key here to what I’m trying to get across - that progress can be in the eye of the beholder![quote=“Mister44, post:24, topic:93208”]
I am not delusional in thinking there aren’t a lot of places that are still bad and we have a long, long way to go.

But another point I want to get across is that what looks like progress for one person isn’t for another. So who is right? If the Victorian/Edwardian eras felt incredibly modern and sophisticated from the POV of a elite or middle class Londoner and they saw their lives as the pinacle of progress does that negate the colonized in seeing the world falling backwards into violence and oppression? [quote=“Mister44, post:24, topic:93208”]
like yesterday when I had to pay $50 to PICK UP a prescription SCRIPT (the paper) and kill a whole night running around getting it filled

I read that in another thread. Total BS. But would someone who thinks that the opiod (did I spell that right) addiction epidemic is rampant and that anything that makes is harder to gets those drug is progress think of your struggle to take care of your health as being “retrograde” in nature? So, it’s back to perspective, right?

When I think about how we can do that now, it does kind of amaze me!


He went to my high school…years after me, but it’s still cool.


I think part of the problem is using value-system words as metrics. Whether something is better or progress or even, to a certain extent, oppressive, will be largely a matter of subjective values, not objective data. Looking in from the outside, I get the possibly incorrect sense that your field, historians, prefers things that can be more distinctly measured, like comfort, autonomy, freedom from diseases, survival and so forth.

There’s this slightly, um, unconventional economist named Robin Hanson who’s notorious for his strict utilitarian views on what he and others perceive to be the coming era of Ems, when they think emulated people will vastly outnumber flesh-and-blood humans and that they’ll do most of the work. In this future, the ems are based on a handful of experts who derive satisfaction from being the best at whatever they do, so the legions of copies of them will represent by far the greatest net level of satisfaction and productivity in history. By a purely utilitarian standard, that’s progress, but most of us are not strict utilitarians and recognize this is a nightmarish dystopia to be averted.

Similarly, the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction was good news for small mammals, but rather bad for dinosaurs.


I’d argue that words can become imbued with value system concepts? [quote=“GulliverFoyle, post:27, topic:93208”]
will be largely a matter of subjective values, not objective data.

Agreed and I think lots of modern historians attempt to work that into their work. Plenty, of course, write unabashedly from their political point of view. It’s easier to position oneself as objective if writing from the culturally and socially predominant position (being white, male, etc). Writing a history from the POV of the people who have historically been oppressed is going to have political implications, because it’s challening something that was held to be just… the truth. That’s part of the reason for the less certain, postmodern turn by some in the humanities, which includes writing more from the perspective of women, LBGQT people, POC, colonized people. Looking from their POV is going to give you a different view of what’s been deemed “progress.”

That’s going to depend on your historian, of course. The key is what CAN we measure through the sources we have. I think lots of historians attempt to put different perspectives in conversation with each other, and to show things like how the lives of the colonized in the periphery were intertwined with the lives of those at the colonial core who benefited from the labor of the colonized. In this case, progress itself is a contested idea, I think.

Sure. But again, that’s not history, it’s more in the realm of science. I’m not sure how we put value judgement on the wiping out of the dinosaurs, when the meteor or whatever killed the dinosaurs was not (as far as we know - we could be wrong on this count) a deliberate, calculated act intended to do so. It’s hard to judge it because presumable no critter involved had sentience as we understand it. Small mammals and dinosaurs didn’t make choices that led to that outcome (again, as far as we know).

People, however, make choices all the time and have been doing so (again presumable) for as long as we’ve been people. As a historian, I can only use the evidence people of the past left behind to write a narrative about what happened in the past. And I can only make judgements based on that as well. Whether or not we SHOULD make value judgements about the past is a topic of debate among historians (cause we’re a argumentative bunch), because of fears of imposing our modern values on the past. But to imagine we are entirely objective and not influenced by our values is a huge mistake. I much prefer to read a book and will take it seriously when I read at the beginning what the writer’s biases are, in some way. For me, acknowledgement of one’s biases is better than denying that they exist at all.


Okay, not the best example. I only meant that what’s advantageous to one value system, agenda, culture, group or even species can be quite detrimental to another. Granted, that’s not exactly a revelation. I guess that as a non-historian reading the work of historians, what I look for is as much semantic clarity and detail as is practical (accepting the counterbalancing necessities that words are messy and explication requires valuable time and page-space). Because I, and most of the lay public, lack the tools of a trained historian, clear definitions are my best way of not getting hopelessly lost. At the same time, as someone in his own technical field, I acknowledge that some things aren’t written for the lay audience and can therefore assume that particular technical tool-chest that the wider public lacks.

That makes sense. Language is a living thing after all. It’s probably very difficult to totally avoid value-laden language. Probably the best anyone can do is to try to find words that have a wider consensus of meaning, and even then there’s the unavoidable risk that posterity won’t read it the same way.


Sure, but I get the point you’re making. [quote=“GulliverFoyle, post:29, topic:93208”]
clear definitions are my best way of not getting hopelessly lost.

I totally agree with this. I’m pretty supportive of the idea that history belongs to the realm of the public. I do think that, as a whole, we tend to be one of the discplines that is least inclined to use jargony language. Although plenty of historians employ jargon from other fields (I’ve done that myself at times), there isn’t tons of jargon from our field. I personally get entirely frustrated with historians who only write for other historians and don’t give a damn about public outreach and historical education. We act like we’re too good to write clearly, concisely, and to the public, and then we wonder why people look at academics as being out of touch (even if many of us really are not). [quote=“GulliverFoyle, post:29, topic:93208”]
Probably the best anyone can do is to try to find words that have a wider consensus of meaning, and even then there’s the unavoidable risk that posterity won’t read it the same way.

Indeed. At some point, historians become part of the historical narrative, which is something many of us are keenly aware of, sometimes in not very productive ways - wanting to be the next celebrity academic who gets called on by the people in power. Everybody wants to be the next Foucault, Brinkley, Zinn, or Turner, and much fewer of us want to be the endless, nameless adjuncts that dot the academic landscape, looking to cobble together a living and maybe get some writing and research in as well. Of course, that’ has little to do with the present conversation! :wink:


STEM fields also have the advantage that our non-lay stuff tends to have lots of equations that scare people off, which is a very mixed blessing.

And then there’s the problem of the experts in any field who do reach out to the lay audience getting to shape the narrative the public consumes. I think academics and experts in any field, whether humanities or STEM, ignore the public at their own peril.


Sure. And then that’s used against experts by some. It becomes a problem of perceptions of elitism. This is especially true of the humanities, which in the minds of some are harder to justify, as it’s seen as a place where postmodernism flourishes and where people are out of touch with the lives of the masses. At least with (many) STEM fields, you can always say that industry also needs STEM. Most people think the public or corporations don’t need historians or literary critics or sociologists.


We do not live by sprockets alone!

Bad joke: What do Trump and Mao Zedong have in common? Neither believe in culture.


Indeed. I think that art, culture, and history have a role to play in society and should not be left entirely to private industry, because then it will only reflect the needs/desires of private industry. But the trick is in getting people to understand the value to society and all people in the nation, not just the nation-state itself.


Even science largely relies on math that some mathematician came up with long before its practical usefulness was ever recognized. A society that devalues pure knowledge isn’t long for this Earth, IMO.


Indeed. The far fuzzier nature of the humanities make it less clear to many what they contribute. It’s easy to point to things in people’s daily life that is a positive from the STEM (and seen as progress - all of us having greater computing power in our pockets than were used on the Apollo missions, etc). Humanities impact is harder to define and pin down. I think people don’t make the same connections between the roots of our collective historical and cultural knowledge and the humanities.


True. And this is why I really think it’s critical to teach humanities as part of any core curriculum. I see so many business and STEM majors who balk at having to learn a language or take a couple of history courses. I wonder if perhaps the core curriculum standards should include a course or two that teaching the essential role of the humanities in civilization. I think I want to see a 101 class called Those Who Ignored History!*

*…latest chapter being written.


Indeed! I like this idea and wish I could implement it - it might help attract more history majors. Same for literature and music classes, among other things.

These things are not optional for our humanity, I think and leaving them to the vagaries of the marketplace isn’t an option. Of course, with many universities and colleges having struggle for funding, it’s little wonder why they start to attract funding from private corporations by acting more like them.


I think Humanities and History is a very important part of education.

First off, I don’t know why more people aren’t huge fan - it is basically story time.

Science and Technological progress is great, but we need to also learn about people and the past so we can best figure out how to utilize that technology and learn how it shaped our world and ways of thinking in the past.

I think Psychology is something we should make mandatory too. I loved my Psych 101 class, and have dabbled in several pop psych books since. In hind sight, I should have taken more psych and economics classes as electives.

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