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Sep 16, 2015

How Do Individual Stories Converge into a Broader History?

From an interview by Stephen Dubner with Drew Faust, the first female president of Harvard  [Freakonomics Radio, 9/3/15]

I stopped everything when I heard this question and its answer on this podcast.  I love this description of bridging individual accounts, diaries, personal experience, family history with the broader historical narrative. 


DUBNER: And I know you’ve written that history is inherently tricky in that we rely so often now and then on individual stories, and yet individual stories can be nothing more that anecdotes that might be anomalous. So the job of a historian is to square those stories with the aggregate. I’m curious how you would apply that to the modern world these days. You know, you’re one person, I’m one person, everybody listening here is one person with their own sets of opinions and perhaps biases and so on. And yet we need to kind of think through our own prism, but toward the greater population. Do you think that problem that you identified as an historian is a big problem in kind of public civic life today and why there’s so much sort of…

FAUST: That’s such an interesting question. That’s such an intriguing question, which suggests its own answer, I believe. Part of why I love history is it takes it outside ourselves and at its best enables us to look through other people’s eyes. And that enables us to understand what’s contingent about our choices and our existence. And we need to do that in our own time as well. We need to bridge beyond ourselves and take advantage of stories to serve as a road to other people, as a pathway to being able to look at the world through their eyes and to understand where they’re coming from, why they might differ with us on matters of policies, or practice, and have the stories empower us to be more than simply locked within our own selves. So that seems to me an important part of what stories can do for us now.