Does history matter? Part I


Grab a cup and join me!

That’s the question for today:  what are we historians doing, and does it matter?  I wonder if it’s possible that 20 years after earning my Ph.D. that I might have chosen the wrong academic discipline.  Most historians are way too methodologically conservative for me.  Why has it taken me half a career to figure this out?  Is it history, or is it me?

I always preferred history to literature.  I always took at least one English literature course per semester in college, and toyed for a time with majoring in English, but I never got the hang of writing a literature paper.  You historians can probably guess the kinds of papers I wrote for my English classes, papers that explored the historical context of whichever text or author I was supposed to be writing about instead of the text itself!  I worked with loads of lit students in graduate courses in cultural theory, which were a big deal in the early 1990s at Penn.  I appreciated its insights for history, but was a bit dazed at the thought of applying the ideas just to one or two “texts,” instead of loads of “primary sources.”

At the time, I never really grokked what the lit kids were up to:  their methods of reading texts seemed belabored and claustrophobic, and the scope of their research and the stakes of their arguments seemed way too limited.  We were all talking about Michel Foucault, but they were talking about the death of the author, while we historians were talking about power, finally!  English and even Comp Lit’s interest in history also seemed old-fashioned and very focused on biography–a complaint that’s pretty ironic now, as a biographer myself frustrated by my fuddy-duddy discipline.  I wish too that I had paid more attention to their different ways of reading texts–but as you may know from bitter experience yourself, education is wasted on the young.  

While I was earning my Ph.D. and shortly thereafter, it seemed like literary scholars and historians were really ungenerous with one another.  It was not unusual in the 1990s in interdisciplinary seminar to hear pronouncements like “you can’t say that” or “you can’t do that!,” which is weird because we clearly needed each other.  This was during the rise of the “New Historicism,” after all!

I didn’t like hearing “NO” from literary scholars (or from other historians, for that matter), but I also noticed that historians were the ones who seemed likelier to make those kind of judgments and police those boundaries.  Was it because deconstruction and French theory had destabilized the nature of truth and the boundaries of fiction versus nonfiction texts, and we were defensive about that?  What made a text “historical” instead of “literary,” and what made us so confident that there was anything more truthful or reliable about the so-called “historical” sources we used?  Historians didn’t think up these questions on our own; we needed the help of people who know how to read creatively and intensively:  the scholars of literature.

In the past fifteen years, it seems like historians and literature people have enjoyed a ceasefire, mostly because after September 11, 2001 and throughout the George W. Bush years we recognized that we had far more in common than differences between us, and educational values–really, enlightenment values–seemed at risk in the 2000s as they do now again in the 2010s as we all brace to withstand the looming shadow of the Human Stain and his post-factual, post-expertise presidency.

I’m not going to resign my position, nor am I going to start writing dramatically different books–at least I don’t think so.  But I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the boundary-policing and fence-riding instincts of my discipline.  Now that I’ve published two books and will finally get my damn promotion, maybe my role is to continue to stand just a little bit outside, just a little bit askance of the rest of historians to keep asking “why?”

Given the masses of immigrants and refugees whose lives are on hold or in camps in South Sudan, on the outskirts of Calais, Sardinia, or in Ciuidad Juarez, it seems like the ultimate narcissism of small differences to quibble about the nature of scholarship or our “standards,” those weasely things we only evoke so as to tell someone else “NO.”  Now is not the time for nibbles or equivocation.  Is it important to have independent-minded scholars in our universities and cultural institutions?  Do historians matter–and by historians, I mean not just college and uni professors but everyone working professionally in history–in archives, museums, and government agencies?

It’s time to stop saying “NO,” and start saying “Yes, and this is what we bring to the table.”  Tomorrow, I’ll lay out a few ideas for what that is.

UPDATE, March 17, 9:30 MDT:  See part II of this two-part series, “Does history matter part II:  what historians bring to the table.”

20 thoughts on “Does history matter? Part I

  1. Historians matter a lot. Narrow intellectual conservatism hobbles our capacity to make a difference. I have never played by those rules and have done everything I can to urge people to think more broadly about our audiences, our methods, our language and our mission. Brava to you for walking the talk!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why do historians have to be such conservative poops? Are they born that way, or does the discipline cosset and reward those tendencies?

      I guess the only thing to do is call them out on it. And yet, the conservativism of the discipline has its uses. This is what I will explore tomorrow in part II.


  2. “Those working professionally on history” should also include high school teachers. The quality of history teaching at the secondsry level seems to vary much more than in other disciplines. Most hs history teachers were education majors, not history majors. Superficial activities are too often valued over intellectual depth. If we want young people to understand the importance of history and historical thinking, we need historians in the high school classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES–absolutely. I did not mean to exclude anyone teaching at the K-12 level. Thank you for adding this to the mix. (I was in the mode of thinking about public history & archival/museums work – in part because that’s a concentration in the M.A. program in my department, but also because the work of historians and archivists who work for the U.S. government will likely be under special attack by the Human Stain and his puppetmasters, Putin and Steve Bannon.)

      In Colorado, my sense is that most of our history teachers at this point are grads of programs that offer History degrees w/a Social Studies Teaching concentration, as my uni does. In all but some rural areas, I believe these grads now predominate. My kid has several teachers in middle school with Master’s degrees in History–not just her history teacher, either, but then I live on the fringes of the Front Range/metro Denver area.


    • Regarding high school history teachers — too often the coach is also the American history teacher because it’s considered throw-away subject. Oh, anybody can teach that. Therefore they do a crappy job and kids turn away from what should be a fascinating journey.


      • I wonder, too, about the recent fad amongst ed reformers to push for the abolition of distinct subject areas. This to me seems to reveal a lack of respect for the particular methodology and habits of mind that, say, science, history, and literature develop in students. I find this push against subjects to be an act of either earnest naivety or deliberate philistinism that either way promises to deprive students of intellectual depth and an appreciation for differing approaches to knowledge, not to mention academic preparation for post-secondary work.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess I’d like to see a stronger case for the premise here that historians “are” more methodologically (or otherwise) conservative than practitioners of other disciplines, maybe specifically literary studies. This question takes us more into philosophy than politics, and that adds yet another disciplinary lens to conjure with before even a provisional answer can be had. It does seem to me that history is somewhat more categorically “empirical” than many other allied humanistic fields of inquiry. Because empirica have been around since geological times, and theory only since the dawn of consciousness, if people’s tendency to resort quickly to their habits of practice when in dialogue with members of other tribal units, that sort of stacks the deck: history is clinging to the “old,” while other fields are reaching for the “new.”

    If it’s subject matter, no question. The study of the past of every subject except for powerful male primates has been one of struggles to overcome every kind of obstacle that could be imagined or contrived. But subject and methodology are at least to some degree different things, if obviously not exactly unrelated. Whether arguably naïve positivist faith in finding new, more, and different empirical sources in the service of conducting these struggles has been less or more effective than possibly headstrong-bold theoretical charges at the ramparts would be a complicated question to pose, much less to answer. There has been a fair amount of bleed-through back and forth between those disciplines, although literary scholars have doubtless been earlier, more active, and venturesome, as classic “texts” get “used up” and new people begin to textualize what historians view as things, records, and sources. I’m not saying that I’m affirmatively skeptical here, in any sustained way, just interested in maybe more fine-grained analysis (tomorrow?)

    I was at Penn a full {long time} before you, Historiann, and just before I went there someone said, well, it’s a pretty *quantitative* place, and you took Math point.001 from a professor with a JD, not a Ph.D. Also, there are a lot of different methodological orientations, which might mean as many factional turf wars. I didn’t find either of these things to be substantially the case. There was a lot of generally good natured implicit argument going on, but at worst, practitioners of some orientations just ignored each other, which may be worse than fence-riding and saying “no.” But that was just internal. There was not a whole lot of interaction, that I remember, between history and lit kids, in each others’ home seminars. It was mediated (on the American side, admittedly) through the American Civilization program, which was a department. Culture in that context was more traditionally anthropological, and imagined more around fieldwork and data than around what came to be meant by “theory.” Maybe, on a kind of neutral ground, that led to less fence-riding and more tacit and accommodative absorption of novel approaches. Or maybe not. Penn torpedoed American Civ and a bunch of other entities in broad daylight in 1993 after what the powers-that-were insisted was a careful and inclusive review, but which the passengers and crew on the sinking ships described as a blind-sided power play. See Dell Upton’s post on the primordial H-Net listserv, October 1, 1993, archived online. Maybe not a good move?


    • Ah, yes: the time when the “end of history” was interpreted at Penn as “the end of American Studies.” I well remember the students in that program desperately trying to switch to the History or English Departments to save their coursework and career prospects. American Studies would have been the place to build in courses in public history, museums, etc. and it could have been a leader in these fields–but alas, Penn still doesn’t recognize that there is such a thing as public history, or the U.S. West as a historical subject, or environmental history–so you can’t say the Big Thinkers over there have such a great record in predicting the future of history!

      We are going to disagree on the value of methodological conservativism, Indyanna. I’m totally over it. I’m more interested in new ideas and, yes, new evidence. The old stuff just isn’t working very well, so it seems like an interesting time to try something new.


  4. Do you find that there are some fields where people are more/less conservative in approaches? More/less interested in maintaining boundaries?
    I ask because in lit, I tend to find Medievalists are always challenging boundaries, really thinking in interesting theoretical ways, often ahead of the rest of us.


    • Medievalists are an interesting bunch. Sure, the people we talk to are really innovative and daring, because they MUST BE! But there are still a lot of Euro Medievalists who are doing very traditional church history, etc. So my impression is that Euro medievalists are either the most interesting people in the room, or the least. It doesn’t seem like there are too many “meh” medievalists.

      In history on the whole, I would say that people working comfortably in political or military history as traditionally defined are probably the most interested in policing boundaries and most invested in methodological conservativism. Some historians of religion are like this, but then I find there’s also the really radical or interesting crowd over there–so they’re more like the Euro medievalists like that.

      I think conservativism, or stick-in-the-muddism, is a disease that all historians suffer from, more or less.


  5. This is really interesting. It makes me wonder, like Bardiac, if there are differences between fields in this regard. The thing that drew me to history was the fact that it seemed far *less* methodologically conservative than literary studies. Historians are free to draw creatively on whatever sources, methods, or theories make sense for a particular subject or problem. My experience at BFU not so many {XX} after you pretty much bore this out. It was entirely free of the kind of boundary policing you mention and in fact the most vital intellectual fora for humanists (Ethnohistory, African Studies, History of Material Texts, French Cultural Studies, HSS) were all about tearing down disciplinary and methodological orthodoxies. But these were also all oriented towards places and/or times other than Anglo North America!


    • That may be the key to the differences between your experiences and mine, Ellie: I was working in colonial Anglo-America at the time, and it was most definitely an East coast-focused, Anglo-only curriculum (plus the Caribbean!) My sub-field is especially fuddy-duddy and conservative.


  6. My only experience is with Cliometrics… I mean, I guess we’re conservative in that we have tools that we use and any deviation from those tools needs to be methodologically rigorous (and how rigorous we can be depends on the data we have)… but… I don’t really see that as a bad thing.


  7. I suspect that your frustration comes at least in part from the field you’re in. There are certainly innovative US historians out there (like you!), but in general I find that US specialists have more invested in core ideas that the rest of us are increasingly skeptical of, such as the primacy of the nation-state. The other thing I notice about most US historians is that they are blissfully un-engaged with non-American scholarship about their field, and that narrows their ways of thinking considerably. My own field of USSR/Eurasia had a civil war over “revisionism” in the 1980s followed by a mad rush to newly-opened archives that are once again closing. Tough conditions have forced many of us to get creative in how we think about and do history, based on changing fundamental assumptions and access to sources. This is certainly not all good: I write an article about X because I have sources on X, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that X is worth writing about. I don’t think of our field as stodgy, though.

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  8. Conservative? Really? I know it is a stereotype, but would question its accuracy. My perception from grad school onward has been that successful historians are flexible and creative, by necessity, because we pay attention when primary sources on the past keep turning up unexpected stuff. Oh, and because finding new sources can require careful cross disciplinary thinking (for example historians of Africa now routinely discuss tin trunk literature, and draw on techniques or insights from archaeology and ecology as we explore medicinal knowledge and environmental strategies.) The realities and experiences we encounter in documents and other sources are often unexpected and much stranger than fiction.
    Indeed, I have always argued that when teaching, one of the things historians do is introduce students to the remarkable range of ways that people have understood the world, their options and their needs.
    But I don’t work on US history.
    And I would note that there clearly are some history teachers whose emphasis is less on understanding experiences and more on events and established canons.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. These last two comments by Northern Barbarian & Ca are really interesting–although American historians don’t think of themselves as necessarily conservative–politically or methodologically–I can see why non-U.S. historians see themselves as more innovative and resourceful, mostly because (like medievalists) they MUST be!

    Food for thought as I concoct today’s post. . . developing, as they say!


    • As a non-U.S. historian, I just last night said to another person in my field “a lot of the work in our field bores the shit out of me.” Yes there is innovative stuff but there is some lingering dogma that certain topics are more important than others or that we can only interpret material in particular ways. Lately I’ve been much more drawn to more literary work for the creativity in thinking about interpretation and what we can define as “the archive” and how the archive is constructing our interpretations and narratives.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Does History matter, part II? What historians bring to the table | Historiann

  11. History is something that will continue to matter. However, the context in which we view it will change with each generation. For example, students in school today read about Abe Lincoln and the Civil War, but in the context of history, their understanding is vastly different from that of a person who was living during that time period.


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