How Will Future Historians See Us?

As barbarians, says Lawrence Summers, economist and former President of Harvard.

What's the Big Idea?

What will historians say about our time 100 years from now? How will our world be remembered? According to Lawrence Summers, economist and former President of Harvard, a civilization's legacy has more to do with the work of its many teachers and thinkers -- artists, scientists, writers, philosophers -- than with the elite few who hold positions of power in the political sphere. (Summers should know: he spent two years as Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, and two as an advisor to President Obama.)

"Isaac Newton's name will be remembered far longer than any person of wealth or fortune," he says in his from his Floating University Lecture, The Authority of Ideas: Decoding the DNA of Education in Search of Actual Knowledge. "Einstein's reconceptualization of the universe likely will last longer than almost any monument than anyone constructs to themselves or to any triumph."  Watch an excerpt from the lecture: 

What's the Significance?

Summers' central argument is that we are moving from a world governed by the idea of authority to a world governed by the authority of ideas. He sees history as progressive on a macro-level: a series of cultural advances leading - slowly, and with many interruptions -toward increased human empathy and collective understanding. Which means that, just as we are shocked today by the consciences of our ancestors, we're likely to be looked upon on by our own descendants as barbarians.   

Here, Summers names a few things that he believes will invoke the disgust of historians of the future - poverty; the treatment of children, animals, and the elderly; superstitious approaches to problem-solving. But, he says, when it comes to who and what will actually bring about a new way of seeing the world, the most powerful instigators of social change are:

  • people
  • protests
  • and philosophies -- "better thinking than the thinking that came before."
  • Tell us: how will our world be remembered?

    To subscribe to the Floating University course "Great Big Ideas," click here.

    Related Articles

    Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

    How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

    Credit: Ron Miller
    Surprising Science

    While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

    Keep reading Show less

    Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

    A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

    New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
    Surprising Science

    We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

    Keep reading Show less

    NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

    Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

    Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice

    Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

    Keep reading Show less