Why Historians Should Teach the Future

tags: education, history

Peter Bishop is Founder and Executive Director of Teach the Future, a non-profit corporation whose mission is to introduce futures thinking at all levels of education around the world. He retired as Director of the Foresight program at University of Houston in 2013. David Hochfelder is an associate professor of history at University at Albany, SUNY. Joe Sears is a lifelong learner and high school history teacher at The Emery/Weiner School, a Jewish independent school in Houston, Texas. David Staley is Director of The Goldberg Center and an associate professor in the Department of History at The Ohio State University.


We teach about the past, don’t we? Why can’t we teach about the future?”

As Peter Bishop relates, that idea came from Calvin Cannon, the founding Dean of the School of Human Sciences and Humanities at the University of Houston-Clear Lake in 1976. Cannon was interviewing Bishop for a job in sociology and statistics. Bishop recalls, “I asked about an unusual Master’s degree called Studies of the Future. [Cannon] shot back with that quote. As a ‘scientific’ sociologist, I had a lot of reasons why you couldn’t ‘teach the future,’ but I wanted the job so I kept my mouth shut.” Bishop got the job and joined the futures faculty six years later. He recently stepped down as head of that program, the world’s oldest program in strategic foresight. Today he is leading an initiative called Teach the Future to introduce futures thinking into schools and colleges around the world.

In this article, we make the case that the future can be studied using methods and habits of thought similar to those used by historians and, just as importantly, that we ought to teach our students about the future. By way of conclusion, we offer some strategies to train high school and college students to think and act like futures-oriented citizens.

One of us, David Staley, argues that historians have largely avoided thinking about the future because we believe the future is unpredictable. But futurists and strategic foresight professionals today rarely talk in terms of prediction, conceding that the future is largely beyond prediction. Futurists handle the problem of unpredictability, however, by using scenarios: narratives or stories that describe plausible states of a future system. As Staley makes clear in his book – History and Future: Using Historical Thinking to Imagine the Futurescenario thinking turns out to have very close parallels to historical thinking in at least six ways:

Inquiry. Historical inquiry begins with knowing how to ask the right questions, and this is also true about the future. When we ask these questions, what we mean to ask is “what is the system going to look like?”

Evidence. Historians seek answers to our questions by uncovering evidence. We hunt and gather information to answer these queries, and refine or alter our questions in the face of new evidence. What do we mean by “evidence of the future?” Futurists scan the environment for “meaningful antecedents” in newspapers, trade journals like MIT Technology Review, and similar sources.

Imperfect and incomplete information. Historians understand that our sources from the past are incomplete and imperfect. Similarly, the evidence, the antecedents of the future—such as they are—are by definition incomplete. We do not have all of the information we need to anticipate the future, which places historians in an advantageous position with regard to understanding the future.

Inference: Historians interpret and draw inference from that evidence, meaning we see more in the evidence than what is explicitly stated in that evidence, even beyond what the creators of the evidence saw or intended. The same is possible with evidence of the future.

Complexity: Historians are experts in context. When studying the past, we reject simple determinism, and have a sophisticated understanding of causation, understanding that complexity is the norm. To explore context means that we investigate the messiness and independent variables of a system and do not assume these away. Historians understand that the future is a field of possible states of the system.

Representation: Historians write representations of the past, and understand that the representation is not the same as the thing represented. Frank Ankersmit has called historical representations “proposals” about the past: provisional statements based on probabilities. Scenarios are very similar to historical representations. A scenario is a description of a system, a provisional statement about the future under conditions of uncertainty and probability, rather than a prediction, which is a statement based on (scientific) certainty. Like our narratives of the past, a scenario is subject to revision and adjustment as new evidence or new interpretations become available.

We believe that we, as educators, ought to teach the future. An important reason comes from a thought-provoking statistic. If current health and life expectancy trends continue as they have for the past century, about one-third of this year’s college freshman class (the class of 2019) will live to see the 22nd century. Simply put, our students will inhabit the future. The 21st century will be an era of global—and possibly civilizational—challenges. These challenges have deep historical roots and require long term thinking to confront them.

At the University at Albany, SUNY, faculty and administrators have already recognized this need. A few years ago, the university put in place a General Education requirement called “Challenges for the 21st Century.” To quote the undergraduate bulletin, courses satisfying this requirement “address a variety of issues focusing on challenges and opportunities in such areas as cultural diversity and pluralism, science and technology, social interaction, ethics, global citizenship, and others.” These courses “address the historical roots and contemporary manifestations of challenges that lie ahead as students move into the world beyond the University at Albany.” We could not state the case—that historians make good futurists—better.

David Hochfelder offers a 200-level course at Albany called History and Future. Students in the course build several skills. They start by investigating the recent history of a particular topic, for example, the legalization of marijuana in the United States or the intersection of politics and the media. From this research, they develop a set of scenarios about their topic: a baseline scenario that extrapolates current trends, a scenario based on an acceleration of trends, a scenario based on a deceleration of trends, a scenario that describes their preferred outcomes, and a “black swan” scenario that incorporates a plausible but unexpected event. The skills students build in these exercises will help them to assess probable futures and to create preferred futures.

Joe Sears is a world history teacher at The Emery/Weiner School, a private high school in Houston, Texas. His students enjoy thinking about the future and often ask, “If this movement/collapse/growth continues, where will it lead?” Using categories of historical analysis (including political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and geographical), Sears and his students look for three major themes in world history: connections, comparisons, and changes. These themes relate beautifully to teaching the future.

A few years ago, Sears created his first future studies project entitled “The Next Chapter of World History.” This cumulative creative assignment was meant to help his students practice foresight in making plausible predictions and extrapolations into the future. Using their textbook as a guide, students imagine a future event that would have a major impact on world history and create a sample textbook entry from the future. In the lead-up to this assignment, Sears and his students discussed plausibility and what constitutes a major historical turning point. For the final project, students created a digital version of a page from a future textbook covering a hypothetical--but plausible--scenario. Students also created relevant key terms, diagrams, and data sets to accompany their narrative. Overall, the students thoroughly enjoyed the assignment and came up with a wide variety of highly creative scenarios. At Emery, the History Department works to instill five essential Habits of Mind in our young historians: analyzing our world, persisting when stuck, applying past knowledge, clarifying our language, and engaging other voices. Teaching the future is a natural application of these habits in the classroom. Students should be just as comfortable discussing and imagining the future as they are the past.

Economists, technologists, management consultants, and professionals in think tanks and government agencies routinely study the future. Future thinking is not merely science fiction or an entertaining amusement. Historians, if they choose to do so, can join these other professionals in devising well-considered scenarios, since our method for thinking about the past is very effective for thinking about the future. Not only do we have the methods and habits of mind to do so, we also have a certain ethical obligation to teach these methods and ways of thinking to our students who will inhabit the future.

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