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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?

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