Monday, February 25, 2013

The lament of the historian…

My colleague William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin was President of the American Historical Association for 2012,  and I want to pass on a clip from the AHA Presidential Address he delivered in Jan. 2013.  Among his concerns about the future of historical studies as a discipline is the digital revolution and internet that are transforming literally everything about the way historians work and how people read:
One of my deepest fears about this brave new digital world has to do with reading itself...It seems to me that the book-length monograph on which our discipline has long relied is very much at risk as texts migrate from paper to screens. It is not just that libraries are reducing purchases, that university presses are facing cutbacks, or that declining print runs and rising per-unit costs are pricing many specialized monographs beyond the reach of ordinary buyers. My deeper fear comes from watching my own students, many of whom no longer read books for pleasure. If they have any prior experience doing research, almost all of it is online. If a piece of information cannot be Googled, it effectively does not exist for them. More than a few of my students have never actually been inside the stacks of a library. To the extent that good writing is predicated on frequent skilled reading, the ability of such students to recognize and construct grammatical sentences and paragraphs—let alone graceful or elegant ones—is plummeting.
In a manically multitasking world where even e-mail takes too long to read, where texts and tweets and Facebook postings have become dominant forms of communication, reading itself is more at risk than many of us realize. Or, to be more precise, long-form reading is at risk: the ability to concentrate and sustain one's attention on arguments and narratives for many hours and many thousands of words. I have come to think of this as the Anna Karenina problem: will students twenty years from now be able to read novels like Tolstoy's that are among the greatest works of world literature but that require dozens of hours to be meaningfully experienced? And if a novel as potent as Anna lies beyond reach, what does that imply for complex historical monographs that are in many ways even more challenging in the demands they make on readers?
What is the future of history?...there is one answer that is arguably the most basic of all, and that is, simply: storytelling. We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us. Although the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the expectations of this digital age, the human need for storytelling is not likely ever to go away. It is far too basic to the way people make sense of their lives—and among the most important stories they tell are those that seek to understand the past. Hang on to this truth, and there is no reason to fear that history will be any less important to the human future than it has been to the human past.

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