I earned my PhD in 2015 at Stanford University in the history of science and technology.
I researched and wrote on many different topics in graduate school, from the historical economics of corporate R&D to the history of popular misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In my dissertation I argued that the development of synthetic materials like plastic ironically evolved in response to widespread fears of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. If you like, you can read the full manuscript through the Stanford Library Online.
The further I ventured into the land of academic scholarship, however, the more worried I became that I would spend my professional life influencing only small, arbitrary groups of privileged students and colleagues. What was more, the scholarly emphasis at universities has become increasingly esoteric and increasingly cynical. Big ideas, such as the rise of modern science and democracy, are overshadowed by narrower studies of things like the politics of emotion and cultural constructions. Too many professors dwell on what humanity has done wrong at the expense of understanding what is good and what is true in the work of civilization. All of this at a time when we need historical perspective more than ever. These concerns motivated me to consider podcasting as early as 2012.
Several months before graduating, I decided to seize an unforeseen opportunity to join a technology startup in San Francisco as Director of Operations. I worked at the tech company on weekdays and finished writing my dissertation on nights and weekends. After graduating Stanford in the spring of 2015, I devoted myself to the tech company full time. But as the books on my shelf began to collect dust, I found myself yearning to engage history once more. So, in the summer of 2016 when our startup disbanded, I decided it was time to launch my first show, How It Began.
Overall, that show functions as my argument for two claims: progress and modernity are real, and the historical factors that have made them possible are sacred. It’s shocking to me how contested these two claims have become within academia and among public intellectuals.
In my new show, Context, I focus on how other scholars have developed their own insights on the rise of the modern world. Notwithstanding my concerns above, there are still countless great books on this subject, but most people simply don’t have time to read them. Through Context, I aim to distill the wisdom from those works in a captivating, accessible way.
We all want to navigate toward greater prosperity, and we can argue over politics and values all day in the effort, but unless we understand our historical context our discourse will be bloated with bad assumptions and progress will stall. We owe it to our future to be better historians.
I am deeply grateful to have a growing community of people who value this principle as much as I do.
Bradford Harris, Ph.D.