Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Debating Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson penned a piece, "What Happened to History," that has driven a bit of commentary among webbified historians. On the one hand are those, such as Winfield Myers at Democracy Project, who agree with much of what Hanson said. On the other are the gaggle at Cliopatria who essentially believe Hanson is too shallow, with Ralph Luker stating that the piece "seemed to challenge history bloggers to give it a fisk." Luker then proceeded to make something of Hanson not properly citing Emerson in an attempt to suggest that Hanson's critique of Ward Churchill was somehow undermined by such supposed hypocrisy. In general, the critics seem to have inferred that Hanson was calling for Historians to do and teach History the way it used to be done, implying (to the critics) that he was calling for the return to preeminence of "dead white male" history. In this, they especially reacted to this portion of Hanson's piece
...there is a radically new idea that most past occurrences are of equal interest -- far different from the Greeks' notion that history meant inquiry about "important" events that cost or saved thousands of lives, or provided ideas and lessons that transcended space and time.

The history of the pencil, girdle or cartoon offers us less wisdom about events, past and present, than does knowledge of U.S. Grant, the causes of the Great Depression or the miracle of Normandy Beach. A society that cannot distinguish between the critical and the trivial of history predictably will also believe a Scott Peterson merits as much attention as the simultaneous siege of Fallujah, or that a presidential press conference should be pre-empted for Paris Hilton or Donald Trump.
(In fact, the example of the pencil spawned its own debate generated by Dave Beito). My guess is that Hanson's aforementioned cause/effect linkage really hit some historians where it hurt. In a field in which people are always searching for some new way to interpret past events, a critique of such usually-applauded innovations probably surprised and hurt the feelings of a few historians. However, I think they (perhaps willfully) misread Hanson. They particularly seem to have inferred that Hanson was being critical of social history, with Luker taking exception to "his denigration of the social history of ordinary lives as 'trivial'."

Meanwhile, Dave Beito first critiqued Hanson for what he didn't write and then claimed Hanson "betrays his ultimate reverence for the history of the American state, as personified by politicians he admires, over the history of how ordinary individuals ultimately provided the basis for American prosperity." While Beito agreed that Hanson properly "addresses the failure of historians to teach more about the founders and the great political issues of the past," he took exception to what he perceived as Hanson's denigration of the "little things":
Hanson's disparagement of the "history of the pencil" betrays a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the tradition of freedom represented by Thomas Jefferson (at his best), Rose Wilder Lane, Frederich Hayek, and Ludwig Von Mises. Unfortunately it is worldview that is rubbing off on libertarians who embrace the Bushian dream of entrusting the American state to bring "liberty" to every corner of the planet. [comments on this post concern the debate over whether or not Hanson was specifically "calling out" Leonard Read].
As a historian, I would simply say that Beito's contention is but one way to interpret Hanson's piece.

In the rarified air of post-graduate History, studies of seemingly trivial (but not necessarily so) items/people/events are of value and can offer new and interesting, if sometimes a bit esoteric, interpretations. However, Hanson's main point was this:
Why do we not carry with us at the least the whispers of those who gave us what we have, from the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge to penicillin and relief from polio? In part, it is a simple ignorance of real history. The schools and university curricula today are stuffed with therapy -- drug counseling, AIDS warnings, self-improvement advice, sex education, women's/gay/Chicano/African-American/ Asian/peace/urban/environmental/leisure studies. These are all well-meaning and nice -isms and -ologies that once would have been seen as nonacademic or left to the individual, family or community. But in the zero-sum game of daily instruction, something else was given up -- too often it was knowledge of the past.
Some historians seem to have forgotten that we all have that baseline of which Hanson speaks, but the students we teach don't. In the rush to make History appealing, to be more inclusive, the formerly compulsory knowledge of important past events has given way to the "nice-isms" mentioned by Hanson. To me, one commenter got it right when he wrote:
Um, guys, I think I'm going to have to defend Hanson here. I don't think he was denigrating the miracle of spontaneous orders, or the use of the example of a pencil by Read to illustrate it. His point is that education is in some sense a zero-sum game -- college students only take x number of classes, and so for every course on the cultural history of lingerie or whatever, that's one less chance to study Thucydides. And that's true. Now maybe he's being overly curmudgeonly, and I think there's probably some value in some of the stuff he's trying to discredit -- but some of it, surely, _is_ trivia or fluff, and meanwhile they end up with _no_ courses on Thucydides. And it's true, isn't it, that our society as a whole _does_ tend to fixate more on the Scott Petersons than on the Fallujahs. And both hawks and doves can agree, I should think, that this isn't healthy. He's being a bit hyperbolic, IMO, but just a bit. His overall point about the state of higher ed is a sound one.
Winfield Myers had a similar view of Hanson's piece
That last paragraph is particularly important, because too many history professors who know better duck their moral obligations to both the subjects of their study and to posterity by silently acquiescing to the leveling of history by their colleagues who are more skilled at degrading past actors than in making history come alive for new generations. Is a colleague down the hall writing another article to prove that the marginalized should be lauded, the peripheral centralized? Are doctoral students directed to spend years examining ephemera while ignoring, or remaining ignorant of, events and persons who shaped our world?

When the professional intellectual class largely abandons its obligation to research and produce readable accounts explaining how we arrived at the present moment, and instead entertains itself with parlor games and careerist machinations, it's little wonder that a keep observer like Hanson will bemoan the arrogance that presentism fosters.
I agree with these last two. Historians have had the benefit of getting that foundation of the "usual" history and, once informed, are able to branch off, elaborate or challenge these interpretations. I think Hanson is saying that we should ensure that everyone receives that basic history baseline before we introduce other, perhaps "sexier", ways of looking at the past.

As a coda, I find it interesting, and unsurprising, that those who are "conservative" tend to agree with Hanson while liberal historians don't. Could it really be because Hanson is advocating the study of one kind of history, associated with conservative or consensus views of history, over other kinds, generally falling under the umbrella of cultural or social history? Perhaps. For me, I find value in all branches of history but sincerely believe that there are some important "must-see-history" events that all should be aware of. Perhaps my interpretation of Hanson's piece is wrong, but that is what I took out of it. (Yikes! Am I being post-modernist and reading into the text!!!???)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Marc, It would hardly be accurate to say that David Beito and I are "of the Left."