Simulating History

Benjamin Breen:

In the long term, I suspect that LLMs will have a significant positive impact on higher education. Specifically, I believe they will elevate the importance of the humanities. 

If this happens, it will be a shocking twist. We’ve been hearing for over a decade now that the humanities are in crisis. When faced with raw data about declining enrollments and majors like this and this, it is difficult not to agree. From the perspective of a few years ago, then, the advent of a new wave of powerful AI tools would be expected to tip the balance of power, funding, and enrollment in higher education even further toward STEM and away from the humanities. 

But the thing is: LLMs are deeply, inherently textual. And they are reliant on text in a way that is directly linked to the skills and methods that we emphasize in university humanities classes. 

What do I mean by that? One of the hallmarks of training in history is learning how to think about a given text at increasingly higher levels of abstraction. We teach students how to analyze the genre, cultural context, assumptions, and affordances of a primary source — the unspoken limits that shaped how, why, and for whom it was created, and what content it contains.