How Will Future Historians See Us?

Lawrence H. Summers is an American economist. He is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus at Harvard University, where he became one of the university's youngest tenured faculty at age 28.

The author of over 150 journal articles, Dr. Summers' wide-ranging contributions to economic research were recognized with the John Bates Clark Medal, given every two years to the outstanding American economist under the age of 40. He was also the first social scientist to receive the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for outstanding scientific achievement.

Beyond his academic career, Dr. Summers has held a number of distinguished appointments in government. He previously served as Director of the National Economic Council for the Obama Administration, Secretary of the Treasury for the Clinton Administration, and Chief Economist of the World Bank.

Lawrence Summers received his S.B. from MIT and his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. He and his wife Elisa New, a professor of English at Harvard, have six children.

  • Transcript


Lawrence Summers: The set of concepts that we were prepared to accept as objects of our sympathy was far more limited than it was today.  Here’s a great question that I hope you will all think about.  It was asked of my daughter as we sat at a dinner in Washington.  A guy asked my daughter, he said, “Ruth, 150 years ago, sitting in this room, we took slavery as absolutely natural and for granted.  And yet sitting here now, it seems inconceivable and barbaric that we would accept the institution of slavery.  A hundred years ago, we took capital punishment; we took flogging for kids who were out of line as absolutely natural.  And that seems inconceivable today.  It is unlikely,” he said, and I think he was right, “that we have reached some apex of civilization now.  What is it that we do that seems natural to us that will seem barbaric 100 years from now?” 

I don’t know what the answer to that is.  Perhaps it is aspects of the way we treat the poor or the very young or the very old.  Perhaps it has to do with the ways in which we treat animals.  Perhaps it has to do with the ways in which superstition continues to shape our approaches to important human problems.  I don’t know the answer, but it would be very surprising if there are not important aspects of how we live today that will shock the consciences of those who look back on us just as our consciences are shocked by those who came before.  And what will change those consciences?  It will be individuals, it will be protests, it will be ideas, it will be philosophies, it will be better thinking than the thinking that came before.