Sunday, 30 October 2016

Accurate But Attractive

In an article a few years ago in the Scandinavian Economic History Review (2012, vol.. 60), 3 historians described what they believed to be the future of their respective field; Geoffrey Jones, a business historian at Harvard, Marco van Leeuwen, a social historian at Utrecht, and Stephen Broadberry, an economic historian now at Oxford, wrote a section each describing the relevance of their fields from the inside and what they thought might happen to it in the future.

Since I've basically been on a thematical killing spree over the last few months, singing the praise of economics and economic history, ardently preaching to the choir over why economics and economic history are essential for the present (and pretty much everything else), I figured I should relate this particular story.

Stephen Broadberry, one of the absolute best economic historians I know of, ends his section with a story allegedly told to him by Leonid Borodkin, a Russian economic historian at Moscow State. Broadberry describes the story as somewhat political, but capturing the "essence of the problem that we face in writing economic history." (p. 249):
There was once a king who decided that it was time for his daughter to marry. The princess was beautiful, so had many suitors. The king decided that any young man who wanted to marry the princess would have to prove his worth by painting a picture of the king, and he stipulated that the picture needed to be accurate but also to make him look attractive. The thing which made this difficult was the fact that the king had sustained a badly twisted leg and had lost an eye in battle, and really didn’t look very attractive at all.
The first young man to put himself forward was the court artist who was sure that he could use his skills to win the hand of the princess. He went away and a couple of days later came back with his painting. The king looked at it and was at first sight flattered to see a picture of an extremely attractive man with two straight legs and two fully functioning eyes. But very quickly he became angry as he realised that the painting was not at all accurate. ‘Off with his head’ said the king and the court artist was led away to be executed.
The next young man to put himself forward was the court physician, who thought that he could use his medical knowledge to paint a very accurate picture of the king. He went away and a couple of days later came back with his painting. The king looked at it and saw a man with a twisted leg and one eye. He noted that it was accurate but was annoyed that he didn’t look at all attractive. ‘Off with his head’ said the king and the court physician was led away to be executed.
Word soon got around that this was a difficult and dangerous assignment, and there were no more suitors for a while. Then one day, a previously anonymous young man put himself forward. His painting showed the king in a shooting party with a rifle. He was kneeling on one leg, so that his twisted leg was not visible, and he had one eye closed as he was looking along the barrel of the rifle, taking aim. The king looked very attractive in this sporting pose, and he had to admit that it was physically accurate. The young man had succeeded in painting a picture that was both accurate and attractive, so the king had to allow him to marry the princess.
The king then asked the young man what his profession was and was surprised to be told that he was an economic historian. ‘How did you know how to paint a picture that was both accurate and attractive?’ asked the king. ‘Well that is what we economic historians have to do all the time’, said the young man.
Tacky and slightly silly, I know, but there's something to it. If economic historians want others to take them (us...?) seriously, to heed the advice of history and, as Ferguson aspires to, do history instrumentally in order to better understand the present, we must write in compelling ways. Some, Broadberry included, have magnifisciently mastered this ability. But, like Agent Smith in The Matrix, we can always use some more.

No comments:

Post a Comment