‘I can’t believe that anyone would not want to be an engineer. It’s baffling to me’ said Naomi Climer, the new President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology on The Life Scientific. As the head of a guild (her term) she’s in advocacy mode, and rightly so. Many of us share that sentiment. We often have strong beliefs about the merits of our own profession (‘I feel the same about physics’ Jim Al-Khalili added) and its value and importance to life, the universe and everything. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s baffling for anyone else to want to do and be something different.
Does being a ‘serious’ engineer, historian or economist mean acquiring a kind of tunnel vision that only sees one’s own field and methods of enquiry? I’m not suggesting for a moment that Climer was actually suggesting that engineering was the only profession worth pursuing, but it’s interesting that she reached for that turn of phrase to express commitment to and enthusiasm for her discipline. It makes me think of Jacobs’ notion of ‘explanatory imperialism’ that it’s all too easy to fall into*. It blinds us to the ways in which different forms of knowledge can combine to answer the complex questions of life, the universe and everything more productively, creatively, insightfully etc.
That’s why it’s important that historians do more than raise the ‘History Matters’ banner. History does matter, and in all kinds of ways that are underexplored and underappreciated. But my sense is that the ‘case for history’ will be most cogently and convincingly made by showing how historical modes of thought and ways of working interlock with those from other disciplines in the making of meaning. We should be looking for complementarity not competition. Collective puzzling can happen alongside individual scholarship.
History doesn’t matter more than literature or sociology or chemistry – it matters with, alongside and in conversation with them (and always has – history is always ‘history of…’, its eclecticism and reach are sources of strength). I’d like to think we can all get beyond bafflement and develop boundary-crossing communities of enquiry that really appreciate the distinctive contributions of their members. Engineers welcome.