Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

December 21, 2007

'All predictions about the future have to be based on the past, so historians are best qualified to make them'.

"That was a really depressing lecture, professor," said one of my students as we emerged from the classroom. It was my last lecture this semester - typically, here in the US, we finish classes a little later in the year than in Britain - and I intended it to be a morale booster for the students' exams and a friendly adieu before the holidays. But the gloom of the day occluded it: morale-crushing skies overhead, life- threatening black ice underfoot. My subject this morning was "The future", rounding off my survey course on the history of the world. Most of my fellow historians would advise against ever broaching such a topic. Stick to the past, they would say. That's where the facts are. Leave speculation to the economists and environmental scientists. But as all predictions about the future have to be based on the past, I think historians are best qualified to make them. The future is just the past that hasn't yet happened.

So I rushed into the subject of things to come and depressed myself as well as my class. I sketched an increasingly complex, increasingly fragile world system. I foresaw a world in which life is cheapened by glut, human rights are discarded and massacres and atrocities multiply. I deplored a future in which we can no longer trust democracies to refrain from launching morally ruinous wars. I imagined electorates recoiling from "future shock" into the clutches of noisy little men with glib dogmas. I foresaw a recrudescence of simple, even final, solutions, with ideological dinosaurs re-emerging to claw at each other in the streets. I threatened my students with the demise of US global hegemony. I explained how and why other markets, other economies, would outstrip America's. I predicted an intractable world in which no benign force would be willing to succeed the US as the world's policeman. I was minatory about scientism, fundamentalism and the stagnation of moral progress. Then I turned to the environment and assured my students that we had no solutions to some of the most dangerous kinds of environmental change: the pace of microbial evolution, the cosmic forces that warm the world, the unforeseen consequences of our own tinkerings with the planet.

I watched the usually eager or indifferent faces turn cloudy, the eyes widen, the brows ripple and rise. Were they afraid for their future or my sanity? I wallowed in my own pessimism. I always recommend pessimism to everybody as the only way to indemnify oneself against disappointment. I piled on the potential horrors, defying my students to disagree or to seek escape in scepticism.

Yet I knew they would not. At the start of every semester I get them to jot down their reasons for taking the course and their expectations of it. So I knew what drove these young Americans to want to know the world. They are aware that they will have to live in a post-American century, and they want to prepare for it. They have grown to adulthood under Mr Bush's presidency and they know he has condemned their generation to a legacy of disaster. They also know they will have to deal with it and that knowledge of how it happened will be part of the equipment they need.

In Europe, one of the most annoying, unfair and yet familiar forms of anti-Americanism is the intellectual snobbery that lampoons US self- immersion. If you live in a country as big as the US, it is hard to learn as much as you might wish about everywhere else in the world. By the time you have read the news from Madison and Milwaukee, there is not much time left for Moscow or Madrid. Many well-educated Americans are unsure whether Paris is east or west of London. But I know many well-educated Europeans who are almost equally uncertain whether North Dakota is north or south of South Dakota. Instead of exchanging accusations of ignorance, we should work at improving mutual knowledge. For the rising generation in the US, there is, in any case, no need to make allowances. They have broken out of traditional US insularity. With 9/11, the world came home to them with traumatic power. Some treat it as an enemy, some as an opportunity, some - like my students - as a potential friend. Today, about 300,000 undergraduates in the US are studying global history or "world history" courses. The rush has filled my classroom. But it's not just self-interest that makes me see the growth of global history as one of the most encouraging trends I've been able to observe while I have been in Boston.

Now, through my window, I can see the the clouds rising and the winter sun shining through. Working with young people who are willing to face the problems of the future, to learn about the world and to use that knowledge to try to avert disaster makes even me feel just a little optimistic.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.