Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Importance of History

This term I am teaching two courses- a second year course on the history of political thought (which is actually a year-long course) and a fourth year/graduate seminar on "science and justice". As I was preparing my intro lectures for both courses I was struck by the importance an understanding of history has in both courses. So I thought it would be useful to write some (brief) thoughts down here about this topic.

What we are today, as societies and as a species, has been shaped by our history. Thus an understanding of our history can help us make better sense of the present and better prepare us to meet the challenges of the future.

The importance of history for the first course- a course on the history of political thought-might appear obvious. But one might wonder what role history could play in the second course I am teaching- science and justice. What unifies both courses is that they trace different dimensions of the evolution of the human species. In the history of political thought course the focus is on the cultural evolution of political ideas and ideals. In my science and justice course the focus is the on intersection of our species' biological and cultural evolution. More specifically, how advances in science might permit us to directly alter our biology in novel ways, and the consequences this might have for the way we conceive of the demands of distributive justice.

Having taught, over the past 12 years, courses on the history of political thought at 5 different universities in the UK and Canada, I am well aware of the reality that most undergraduate students do not come to the first lecture of such a course with a clear and concise understanding of why it is important to study the history of political ideas. For most students it is the first time they will seriously engage with political thinkers that have been dead for centuries, even millennia. For most students it will be the first (and for many the last) time they read the actual works of Plato, Hobbes, Mill and Marx. So I approach my course knowing that an appreciation of the importance and value of political theory is something that must be cultivated. And the best way of doing this is, in my opinion, to get one's students *doing* political theory. To have them engage with the questions that the greats take on- What is justice? What is human nature? Why is there inequality?

Bringing the ideas of the past to life in this way connects students to the past in important ways. By helping students to see how ideals of equality (for example) helped shape the events of the French Revolution or the women's suffrage movement, they learn to appreciate how much power (for good as well as evil) the "realm of ideas" can have on human affairs. Students begin to see that they themselves are active participants in this cultural revolution. And so learning about the past helps them understand (at least part of the story) of how they arrived here, but it also helps equip them with the skills needed to meet the challenges of their own time.

To help engage my students with the thinkers of the past, I have a "theme" song and accompanying video for each of the 14 thinkers covered in the course. I choose songs and images that evoke the themes, emotions and stakes involved with author's political theory.

Below is a sample, the video I use to help get the students excited about reading JS Mill's On Liberty. The music and images have been chosen to try to make Mill "alive" in their minds, and to demonstrate the power of political ideals like freedom.


In my second course, titled Science and Justice, we focus on technological advances in the biomedical sciences. And this requires us to develop an understanding of our evolutionary history, for that history has shaped many of the health challenges we face today.

Because life in the state of nature was, as Hobbes aptly put it, "nasty, brutish and short", humans are vulnerable to morbidity and mortality in late life. The diseases of aging, diseases that threaten to ravage the 2 billion persons who will be over the age of 60 by the middle of this century, are the product of evolutionary neglect. Seen through the lens of our evolutionary history, the imperative to develop novel health interventions that can remedy the shortcomings of natural selection can be rationally and cogently addressed. Taking the "long view" of our species' history, from the "Young" world plagued by infectious disease, poverty and violence, to today's "Aged" world dominated by the chronic diseases of aging is an effective way of framing the importance of knowledge and well-ordered science.

For a more extensive discussion of how our evolutionary history impacts our health prospects in late life see the following interesting video by this evolutionary biologist:

The health challenges of the 21st century are novel challenges, and understanding the importance science and innovation have played in helping humanity get to where we are today will help students develop the critical skills needed to think sensibly about the regulation of new biotechnologies that can help them best meet the challenges of tomorrow.