A Brief Moral Lesson

American Historical Association President Anthony Grafton wrote in last month’s Perspectives on History (only just brought in front of the paywall for non-AHA members) about, among other things, the gap between the work professional historians do and the public’s perception of that work (full, as they say in the biz, disclosure: I am lucky enough to be Grafton’s student and advisee):

Ann Little and Jeremy Young, the bloggers who responded at length, pointed out, in different ways, that my title was imprecise: “it is not history, but historians, who are under attack.” They’re absolutely right. Americans love history. Tens of thousands of them reenact battles, hundreds of thousands visit historical sites and exhibits, and a million a week on average watch the History Channel. Thousands of them buy the works of history that appear on best-seller lists. From Tea Partiers to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s readers debating the Civil War, they’re passionate about the past. What they don’t love, to the same extent, are professional historians.

Many believe that professional historians are no better than, or indeed worse than, amateurs (a traditional American view that often encompasses experts in other fields, from medicine to climate). Some find that professionals are too politically correct to see the past as it really was. Many, especially journalists, insist that professionals just can’t write.

The biggest problem, though, is rooted in the core of our practices. Professional historians, Little argues, “are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers. We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity. This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck.”

This resounds with me today because yesterday I was reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a work which I have been learning about for much of my school-going life, but never read in its entirety. In eighth-grade US history in Massachusetts, we were taught how special Tocqueville thought this new American kind of democracy was; in eleventh-grade AP US history in California, we likewise learned about de Tocqueville as someone excited and optimistic about this new liberal, democratic project. In a college class at Princeton called “American Society and Politics,” taught out of the sociology department, we read Tocqueville on voluntary organizations, and Americans’ unique predilection for being heavily involved in civil society on their own terms. In the past eight years, the people without Ph.D.s in history who have taught me Tocqueville have never suggested that Tocqueville was in the least bit skeptical about the American experiment—and yet there the skepticism is in the document itself. The first volume of Democracy in America ends with some uncertainty; though Tocqueville believes that “the Anglo-Americans will alone cover the immense space contained between the Polar regions and the Tropics,” he is not so certain that the American political system will endure, or that the rule of the majority will not become tyrannical. He, like his British translator, who introduces the book some twenty years later at the height of the Civil War, is not as taken in by the rhetoric of American exceptionalism as the American teachers who taught Tocqueville to me. (He does, however, accurately predict the Cold War a hundred years early, which is rather impressive.)

My incredulity, as a reasonably-well-educated American who did well in high-school history, on reading Tocqueville yesterday illustrates to me why we need professional historians, and why professional historians need to work harder to bridge the gap between them and the people who teach history to the general public. I would have thought that, by this time in my life, I would have overcome the ability to be surprised by historical fact that differs from what I was taught at school. Clearly those of us thinking about careers as professional historians need to ensure that we can reach and preach not only to our own choir, but also to those who would prefer to attend a gospel of American exceptionalism—or who, as per a QOTD last week, don’t think gender has a role to play as a historical lens.

2 thoughts on “A Brief Moral Lesson

  1. Perhaps part of the difficulty in describing what historians do is that historiography is itself a controversial and dynamic area of research.

    In scientific areas, the methodology hasn’t changed that much as a result of discourse, but rather has evolved relatively continuously, with the growth of journals. Scientists extend the boundaries of knowledge, specifically, knowledge that has predictive power. In the public mind, Scientists generate knowledge that is used by engineers and businessmen to improve the world around us, and/or to make money.

    It’s difficult to explain what Historians produce, and who uses it. Certainly the popular historians produce strong narratives with distilled judgments on historical events. Political or social advocates can then use these judgments to support changes in society. Many such advocates are also their own historians.

    The problem is that the perceived role of amateur scientists is more or less similar to what actual scientists do. Whereas the perceived role of amateur historians is pretty much a completely invalid form of reasoning for serious historians. Elementary mistakes, such as crossing Hume’s fork (using positive statements to inform normative judgments) are constantly made in the casual history arena. Rhetorically it doesn’t do to point this out in a public forum, as most people have no sympathy for such elitist babble.

    Science certainly faces similar frustrations when the public and scientists collide. However science has the secret weapon of proof – Scientists claim to be superior in predictive knowledge, which is, conveniently, a form of knowledge that allows proof of falsity.

    Historians don’t claim to be superior in any realm of knowledge conducive to measurement of truth, or general “goodness” – rather, they excel, as Grafton points out, in emasculating reductionist and agenda-charged interpretations of history. Sure, it’s intellectually satisfying (perhaps it even satisfies a vital compulsion in those so inclined) but it’s not what people want, and the output is, quite frankly, not what most people are looking for.

    Historians would be quick to point out that their work is of immense value in the form of engaging critical thinking, exercising the parts of the mind that make fine distinctions, and refining the questions we ask as we learn about the world. However as any marketing company knows, it’s not enough for your product to be valuable to customers – they have to want it, and recognize its value as well. In a modern metaphor, professional historians are peddling iPhones to people who just want paperweights.

  2. Yes, this sounds very right to me. It’s unfortunate that wanting people to care about critical thinking comes across as–and, in fact, is–paternalism. I have been thinking for months now about how to bridge this gap between the ivory tower and the way the rest of the world functions epistemologically, and I am no closer to a helpful answer.

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