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History in the Age of Fracture

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

History in the Age of Fractureelection_day_1815_by_john_lewis_krimmel1
By Wilfred M. McClay
(June 2015)

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This essay is the twelfth in a series exploring the role of the professions in a modern, liberal democratic society and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.

Like so many of the disciplines making up the humanities, the field of history has for some time been experiencing a slow dissolution, a decline that may be approaching a critical juncture. Students of academic life express this decline quantitatively, citing shrinking enrollments in history courses, the disappearance of required history courses in university curricula, and the loss of tenurable faculty positions in all history-related areas.

But even more disturbing indications of history’s troubled status are harder to measure but impossible to ignore. One senses a loss of self-confidence, a fear that the study of the past may no longer be valuable or important and that history itself lacks the capacity to be a coherent and truth-seeking enterprise, producing genuine knowledge that helps us locate ourselves in the broad expanses of space and time. Some of this derives from the growing vocationalism in American higher education, flowing from a desire that a college degree should lead reliably to gainful employment. But the fear rests just as much on the belief that the road we have traveled to date offers us only a parade of negative examples of oppression, error, and obsolescence—proof positive that the past has no lessons applicable to our unprecedented age.

This loss of faith in the central importance of history pervades all of American society. Gone are the days when widely shared narratives about the past provided a sense of civilizational unity and forward propulsion. Instead, we live, argues historian Daniel T. Rodgers, in a querulous “age of fracture” in which all narratives are contested and the various disciplines no longer take a broad view of the human condition, rarely speak to one another, and have abandoned the search for common ground in favor of focusing on the concerns and perspectives of ever-more-minute subdisciplines, smaller groups, more finely tuned and exclusive categories of experience. This is not just a feature of academic life but seems to be an emerging feature of American life more generally. The broad and embracing commonalities of old are no more, undermined and fragmented into a thousand subcultural pieces.

This condition has profound implications for the academy and our society. The loss of history, not only as a body of knowledge but also as a distinctive way of thinking about the world, will have dire effects on the quality of our civic life. It would be ironic if the great advances in professional historical writing that we have seen in the past century or so—advances that have, through the exploitation of fresh data and new techniques of analysis, opened to us a more expansive but also a more detailed understanding of countless formerly hidden aspects of the past—came at the expense of a more general audience for history, and for the resultant valuable effects upon our public life.

This would be ironic, but it appears to be true. As New York University historian Thomas Bender laments in a recent article, gloomily entitled “How Historians Lost Their Public,” the growth of knowledge in ever-more-numerous and tightly focused subspecialties of history has resulted in the replacement of the old-fashioned survey course in colleges and universities—with its expansive scale, synthesizing panache, and virtuoso instructors—with more narrowly focused courses confined to the research specialty of the professor.

Bender is loath to give up any of the advances made by the profession’s ever-more-intensive form of historical cultivation, but he concedes that something has gone wrong: historians have lost the ability to speak to, and command the attention of, a larger audience, even a well-educated one, that is seeking more general meaning in the study of the past. They have indeed lost their public. They have had to cede much of their field to journalists, who know how to write much more accessibly and are willing to address themes—journalist Tom Brokaw’s celebration of the “greatest generation” for example—that strike a chord with the public but that professional historians have been trained to disdain as ethnocentric, triumphalist, or uncritically celebratory. Professional historians complain that such material lacks nuance and rigor and is prone to repackage the past in terms that readers will find pleasing to their preconceptions. But such works are at least being read by a public that is still hungry for history.

Not content with this state of affairs, Bender urges that we remember the example of certain professional historians—the Progressive historians, such as Vernon Louis Parrington, Charles Beard, and Frederick Jackson Turner, or a more recent one like the great Yale colonialist Edmund Morgan—who were able to write for all kinds of audiences. He ends his article with a plea for “synthetic histories” that somehow square the circle of subdisciplinary intensity and grand narrative sweep, managing to enrich the latter with no loss of the former. But his examples are less than convincing, since the Progressive historians were committed to a rather simplistic and highly political view of American history, as a constant conflict between the progressive forces of light and the regressive powers of darkness, a view that few professional historians today would countenance.

It is worth noting that Bender is not the first to make such a plea for synthesis. As Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn remarked in his 1981 presidential address to the American Historical Association: “The greatest challenge that will face historians in the years ahead, it seems to me, is . . . how to put the story together again, now with a complexity and an analytic dimension never envisioned before; how to draw together the information available (quantitative and qualitative, statistical and literary, visual and oral) into readable accounts of major developments.” This is another call for the squaring of the circle, and it has thus far proven insurmountably difficult to answer.

That we have made so little progress, in more than a third of a century, in creating the kind of “new narratives” that Bailyn envisioned, let alone in making them publicly useful in the ways Bender hopes for, ought to give us pause and perhaps make us wonder if we need to rethink our expectations and our premises. Perhaps something is wrong with the assumption that the problem is simply one of translating the findings of specialists into winsome and flowing language that nonspecialists and ordinary citizens can grasp. Perhaps the problem goes deeper than that. Perhaps there is something vitally important, a missing principle of organization that professional historical writing, almost by definition, cannot provide.

The steady disintegration of history as a discipline and the loss of a public audience for history may be two expressions of the same problem: the obscuring of the fact that historical knowledge and historical consciousness derive their meaning, in a very fundamental way, from their association with our common life, especially our civic life, and therefore with civic education. The loss of a public audience for history may be due to the loss of a history for the public, a neglect of history’s fundamentally public meaning.

To his credit, Bender recognizes this and rejects the proposition that “because our public culture has fractured and we seem to be losing our longstanding alliance with journalism, we no longer have obligations to the public that date from the founding of our profession.” He is not willing to accept the idea that the process of history becoming professional should be free to go its own way, heedless of the public’s need of it. This is an admirable position, though one that most professional historians would probably not endorse. I would endorse it, and take it even further.

 

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