The American Historian

When Historians Tell the Future

Earl Lewis

The summer of 2017 filmmaker and actress Ela Thier released the independent feature length drama, Tomorrow Ever After. The movie showcases an historian from the twenty-sixth century who falls through a hole in the time continuum and ends up in modern day New York City, circa 2015. Confused and disoriented, she struggles to connect with an earlier version of humanity, only to find the ancient ways—our ways—alienating. People live alone or in conjugal units, steal and beg to survive, and eschew physical contact and intimacy, unless it includes sexual gratification. To the central character, Shaina, this is no way to live, let alone to be in the world. After being mugged, hospitalized against her will, drugged, and shunned, she declares that the history books were correct: This was the “Age of the Great Despair.”

Thier’s movie may be read as an allegory about a consumerist culture that values possessions, money, and celebrity more than it does honest, respectful relationships. But in a way, it suggests something far more profound: namely, that the future is not defined by advances in technology or science alone. Rather, in the future, humanists, especially historians, have a lot to say about the development of humankind. In this future people still work, have meaningful relationships, and have social relations, but no one is alone, every basic need is met, and differences are minimized. The message here is simple: while science, engineering, and technology may enable a certain kind of future, they do not predetermine the nature of that future.

Pondering the shaping of the future is not to be dismissed. In his wonderfully crafted autobiography and case for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski argues that young people, particularly students of color, need to be invited to believe that STEM disciplines are for them. Hrabowski, himself a veteran of the 1960s marches by school children in Birmingham, Alabama, understands what is at stake. He grew up in the segregated South at a time when laws limited the aspirations of black kids and delimited the range of career options they could imagine. A precocious scholar, he was admitted to Morehouse College after his junior year in high school as an early admit. His parents decided, however, that their fourteen-year-old was too young to matriculate and told him no, he could not enroll. In a statement of independence, after high school, he opted to go north, where he attended Hampton Institute (today University) in Hampton, Virginia before later earning a Ph.D. in mathematics. For him, unbridled access to opportunity was as much a civil right as the franchise.

For more than three decades Hrabowski has served as a powerful drum major for the significance of STEM, especially as we plunge more deeply into a knowledge-based, digital world and economy. Indeed, a strong case can be made for making sure all students learn the fundamentals of STEM. Our knowledge-based, digital world and economy requires more than a rudimentary acquaintance with science and technology. In fact, all teachers must be encouraged to ask what the educational building blocks necessary to become fully literate and functional in the future are. After all, as a recent report by Anthony P. Carnevale at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found, education pays. Of the more than 11.6 million jobs created post–Great Recession, 8.4 million went to individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 3 million went to those with at least some college. In the aggregate, those with a high school degree or less did not fare well at all, claiming only eighty thousand of the new jobs.

Some have interpreted this shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy as a signal that we should invest only in job-ready education and training. If Tomorrow Ever After is not just a film about the future colliding with the past, but an invitation to think anew about the future we aim to create, then we must return to the question of the requisite literacies for the next period in human history.

A strong case can be made for knowing more about the past. Think of the grand challenges the world has encountered and the ones to be encountered. The list is long—war, poverty, inequality, migration, bigotry, hatred, etc. In his powerful book Stamped From the Beginning (2016), historian Ibram X. Kendi traces the history of racism from the twelfth century through to the modern age. In a lyrical and insightful tour de force, we are reminded that humans built the intellectual apparatuses that assigned value to skin color, region of birth, religion, language, and nationality. He documents the ways these ideas took hold and expanded parallel to human migration, and colonial expansion.

One could tell the history of that same period from a purely biological standpoint, focusing on DNA analysis. Here the unraveling of the human genome has been a boon to those trying to understand human population movement and variation. With more specificity than ever, we know that race is a social construct and that all humans shared 99.9 percent of the same DNA makeup. Ironically, the story of human history does not center on this similarity. Rather, so much of it focuses on difference. As such, we are left with the challenge of explaining what we think of as human history.

The story begins on the African continent. The genetic record shows the movement of our ancestors away from the African continent about seventy thousand years ago. As they ventured northward and eastward they settled in today's Middle East and Southern Europe, moving eventually into Northern and Western Europe as well as India and the broader Asia. Through gene analyses we can see encounters with neanderthals and other human types. Yet rather than staying put, some went on. Over time these travelers crossed over into the Americas and fanned out across the South Pacific and Australia.

In recounting this biological history something is loss, however. Gone is any recollection of a collective African ancestry. In fact, much of our recorded history is about the one-tenth of one percent of difference that accounts for what we see etched on the faces of peoples across the globe. To lessen the cognitive dissonance, we began to tell new origins stories of conquest, exclusion, and expansion, ones that pitted one group of migrating humans against another. Given enough time, these stories attached themselves to people, empires, and eventually nations. They became the accounts of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Goths, Asantes, and others, and we framed this narrative to be about those in our tribe, empire, or nation as opposed to those in another. By the decade, new origins stories accumulated and the memory of a common African ancestry faded. These two parallel explanations underscore the need for more interdisciplinary work. Ultimately, scientists need historians and historians need scientists. For example, we know that dark-skinned, blue-eyed people inhabited Great Britain several millennia ago. We know this because scientists recently announced success in decoding the DNA of a ten-thousand-year-old specimen called Cheddar Man. But the genetic record must overlay the historical record before we can say what happened to those early inhabitants and why so little of their presence is known today. All we know for sure is that lighter-skinned migrants emerged in Northern Europe approximately 7,700 years ago, and paired with lighter-skinned humans from Central Asia who moved westward. So after nearly forty thousand years of human habitation in Europe, the population’s physical features lightened about six thousand years ago. Why? Forced removal? Intermarriage? The welcoming of newcomers and differential reproduction patterns?

The new science frees the historian to ask fresh questions and encourages the teacher to think of innovative pedagogical approaches for talking about the past. At the high school level, the biology teacher and the history teacher may imagine a course on human migration, teaming the genetic record with documents and artifacts more typically examined by historians. Students of American history might find themselves asking new kinds of questions about aboriginal settlements, myths and stories passed along through oral traditions, and ceremonies and symbolism that may shed light on community formation. Others might ask questions about more recent immigration. Here the past may help us understand why nations and peoples all over the world have reacted so vociferously to recent examples of mass migration, given ancient practices. It also encourages the scientist to master some aspects of history, and the historian to know something about genetics and human migration.

In Tomorrow Ever After the historian works collaboratively with scientists of all kinds. She carries a device that captures data, morphs into other gadgets, and allows her to communicate with people from her time. Hers is a world in which history and science are integrated. It is a world in which the humanities matters as much as technology, and historians are valued. The film, of course, creates a vision of the future. Is now the time to begin thinking about how we in the present create that imagined world? That is far preferable to living in the “Age of the Great Despair.”