Friday, October 17, 2014

Short-term memory-itis

A few years ago, Bill Clinton came to campus and gave a memorable speech. One of his many themes that night involved our attachment to the new and our disregard for anything that occurred later than this morning. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram all encourage us to focus on this second. Who posted what in the last thirty seconds? That seems to encompass much of our waking hours.

Historians have our own version of this phenomena. We focus on minute details and short periods of time. A recent study found that doctoral dissertations in history reported that in 1900 the average period studied by doctoral students was about 75 years. By 1975, when the historical profession was in the throes of a movement called microhistory, the span was down to 30 years. My own dissertation covered 66 years--out of the totality of US history, that's not much.

Now, two historians are calling on the profession to expand its gaze again--to focus on the macro level--to see what I so annoyingly keep referring to as "the big picture." I agree and I applaud such advice to young historians. For more, see this summary of the authors' argument:

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