Friday, December 15, 2006

The Historian's Responsibility

In "Democracy and Greatness," Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield offers "an argument for the use of great books in our education, based on the need for greatness in human life." It is this "need for greatness" on which Mansfield focuses and he explains that the "[t]wo obstacles to education in greatness loom before us, modern science and modern democracy." Of these, I'd like to focus on modern science and social science in particular. I take my cue from Mansfield, who believes:
Social science, moreover, has difficulty in understanding human greatness. It looks for the cause of greatness in the circumstances of mass movements or trends that make greatness inevitable, hence not really great. It is based on a simplistic psychology of maximizing the power of one's preferences or of overcoming one's necessities. It is blind to the psychology of greatness because it cannot see actions that sacrifice self-interest to espouse a cause. It has no inkling of human spiritedness, the quality of soul discussed by Plato, called thymos, that prompts us to assert a principle by which to live--and for which to die--as opposed to surviving by any means possible.

Though social scientists would hate to admit it, social science is still a form of Social Darwinism which suffers from the attempt to explain the evolution of man by a principle, the principle of survival, that is manifestly untrue to the facts of human life, and above all to human greatness. Any education that wants to appreciate greatness would have to be critical of social science.

Now, I don't necessarily agree with Mansfield here, and that is because I'm not sure whether he is lumping History in with the Social Sciences. But I think what he has to say is interesting in how it relates to the thoughts of Ohio University professor Kevin Mattson.

Mattson's "History", in the latest issue of Democracy, is a must read for those of us who look to the past with the hope that it can help us understand the present. The sub-title of the piece, "[t]hose who don't know history are doomed to distort it–and our political discourse," is an accurate thesis statement. For example, Mattson uses recent historical analogies offered by Donald Rumsfeld and Jacob Weisberg, both of which he believes were facile and not rigorous enough to withstand serious historical scrutiny, as a jumping off point for a well-considered essay on the role of the historian in contemporary political discourse (so go read it!).

But if such analogies are so specious, why do politicians and pundits continue to deploy them? Simply put, because they can. Today the public, even the educated public, has little knowledge of history, or even an appreciation of history as anything other than a grab bag of unrelated facts to be picked from as one sees fit...But even in their ignorance, audiences are still sufficiently impressed by history’s power that even the weakest analogies provide immediate faux expertise, an instant credibility. Thus history is both poorly understood and everywhere present; we shape our public discourse with a discipline we don’t understand.

And where are the professional historians who are trained to understand the past and could scrutinize such claims? They’re in academia, churning out esoteric articles that move fast onto resumes but rarely into public debate.

Mattson then turns to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (no politically impartial historian he!) to provide historians with a history lesson: historians should attempt to use history within contemporary political debates. If not us, then who?:
Four months before his then-boss, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued in the Atlantic that when scholars abandon engaged history and leave public life behind, they empower "prophetic historians" who replace complexity with a big overarching idea (Schlesinger had in mind Marxism). Today, scholars are leaving behind the public world not to communist theory but to the History Channel, where the imperative of entertainment trumps veracity, where shows about absurd conspiracy theories run alongside more serious fare, all formatted to work in between commercials. Or they leave it behind to blockbuster historians–think David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or the recently deceased Stephen Ambrose–whose books, though widely bought, lack analytical power and critical insight. But most worrisome of all (and here is where Schlesinger was most prescient), professional historians have left a void to be filled by radical historians, who eschew nuance and objectivity in favor of simplistic morality tales.
I think Mattson is too tough on the "blockbuster historians," but his fears of the proliferation of history as a "simplistic morality tale" are, I believe, well-founded. I also agree that History as entertainment has a tendency to stoop down to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, there are more people interested in the "history" of UFOs then in Enlightenment thought. (Besides, there was no film or movie cameras back then!) But I digress. As Mattson explains, "it wasn't always this way." There was a time when the likes of "C. Vann Woodward, Henry Steele Commager, Richard Hofstadter, and Schlesinger himself" actively maintained a foot in the past and the present and the public was better off for the work they produced.

From here, Mattson offers a comparative book review of Howard Zinn's A People's History and C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow to offer his perspective on the responsible contemporization of History. He shows that Zinn's "sweeping, ideology-heavy narrative that leaves no room for contingency or nuance" only serves to simplify history for the left and made it simpler for those on the right to hold Zinn up as a cipher for all that is wrong with the liberal academy.
Rather than ignoring Zinn, they place him at the center of the American historiography, just to show how widespread his approach has become...And once Zinn is accepted as the model historian, it’s easy for the right to prepare the necessary takedown.
Contrast Zinn's simplistic, "blame-it-on-the-man" approach to Woodward's more nuanced and even-handed method, as displayed in Jim Crow:

When he explained the historical rise of segregation, he knew enough to explain his story’s complexity and contingency...Though Woodward was clearly an opponent of segregation and racism, his story didn’t unfold as a morality play of good versus evil but rather as a clash of "real choices," some less harmful than others. He explained: "The policies of proscription, segregation, and disenfranchisement that are often described as immutable ‘folkways’ of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin."

...Woodward’s real contribution, though, was to show that the central philosophical pivots of history–the intersection of social, economic, and political trends with the contingency inherent in all human endeavor–had great relevance for the present. Woodward didn’t seek facile analogies; he sought a clear and thorough understanding of past events as a defining factor of the present...

Woodward showed how the past was complex and made up of the acts of varied players making choices that were in no way inevitable; he would have seen as silly the telling of a narrative in which always virtuous people battle an always villainous power elite. Though he certainly sided with those who wanted to achieve justice, he didn’t toss aside the importance of scrutinizing the past in order to accomplish a better world.

Mattson conludes:
Our culture nurtures instantaneous debate and over-the-top diatribes, rather than thoughtful rumination. But this is precisely what makes Woodward’s legacy all the more important. As the liberal historian Alan Brinkley (sounding conservative to some, perhaps) pointed out in his book Liberalism and Its Discontents, "Reminding our personality-obsessed and result-oriented culture that there are forces shaping our world beyond the actions and characters of individuals–and that we will be more successful if we adjust our expectations and our goals to the reality of those forces, and to the difficulty of our fully understanding them–is one of the things [historians] are best equipped to do." Our culture could use reminding of this right now.
This seems to be a refutation of Mansfield's earlier-mentioned, broader critique of the tendency of the social sciences to focus on the inevitability of social movements and thus reduce the importance of the individual. However, I think that Mansfield and Mattson (assuming that he's sympathetic to Brinkley point of view--he did quote it, after all)--though coming at the problem from different sides--are offering the same solution.

Mansfield and Mattson (and Brinkley) are each correct. It seems to be human nature to want to reduce explanations of historical causation to the most simple explanation (and all the better if served with a large dose of cynicism). If it's not all Bush's fault or the liberal media's, well, then it's the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission or the CFR or the Masons (always the Masons...). Mansfield and Mattson both argue against the simplification of historical analysis.

For Mansfield, it can't always be about movements: sometimes individuals--Mansfield's "great men"--really do make a difference. For Mattson (and Brinkley), even powerful individuals can't control everything and events overtake them, no matter what they try to do to prevent it. Contra to the tendency to oversimplify, responsible historians can show the nuances and complicatons and contingencies that led to the particular characteristics of a given historical event and how it was caused. Usually it had to do with both great men or women and large forces. It's never as simple as it seems.

Thus, as Mattson explains, historians need to buck up and wade in to the public dialogue. In particular, here in the blogosphere, we blogging historians probably need to cut back on the pithy jeremiads-as-blog posts that we tend to pump out. All such posts do is feed the beast. They are grist for the ideological mill and only exacerbate the problem that Mattson describes.

Perhaps one solution would be for us history bloggers to concentrate more on being accurate and fair with how we do our history and less on using it to further political agendas--especially to score quick political points. Or maybe, at least, we should just be more aware of how our history related posts may be used irresponsibly. For instance, if we see a bad historical analogy, instead of going right for the jugular, spewing invective and hyperbole against the poster, we should deal with it in a more professional manner. I know that invective is "sexy" and hyperbole "sells," but I can't help but think that a measured response would be regarded more seriously and respectfully by those with whom you differ.*

I think this all stems from one of the pitfalls of the online world; namely a lack of civility in debate. The remoteness of the keyboard and monitor provides the sort of insulation not encountered when debating face to face. And that insularity too often results in uncharacteristic boldness (or rudeness). Now, before I get accused of going all rainbows and ponies, I want to say that I'm not opposed to rigorous debate and questioning of facts, theories, etc. Instead, historians should try to give each other the benefit of the doubt and accept the sincerity of those involved in the dialogue.

Just because we disagree, doesn't mean I'm Satan or you're Hitler. We just disagree (reminds me of a song). It's the well-intentioned debate over that disagreement that will serve to educate others, perhaps even non-historians, and show that determining historical causation is far from a simple task that ends up with a simple answer.


*I don't know how many times I've seen a potentially good on-line historical discussion sidetracked immediately by one or another commenter casting negative aspersions on the motives of someone with whom they disagree. It's History 101 isn't it: assume that the "source" is genuine, ie; they really believe what they say.


Nonpartisan said...

I'm not sure I agree with you here (though it WAS a fantastic article, wasn't it?). I don't think trying to make online history blogging more "professional" is necessarily a good idea. The blogosphere's chief draw in the discipline is its speed and accessibility, both of which will suffer if bloggers are held to a "higher" standard requiring more evidence and more thought. It will simply take too much time and energy for most amateurs to engage, and the blogosphere will become just one more bastion of the professional historian.

A lot of less professional blogging may be so much signal-to-noise, but I think it helps draw in those who are non-historians and who are intimidated by the scholarly tomes and even more erudite articles that are churned out by the historical community. People read us online who wouldn't dream of picking up the Journal of American History or a similar publication. Advocating a more polished product might actually turn away many of these individuals.

Marc said...

I completely agree with you as far as not bringing all of that history-profession jargon into the 'sphere, too! For the purposes of the blogging history we're talking about, I'd replace Mattson's use of "professional" with "polite", because I think that's really the problem. I particularly believe that historians--especially blogging ones--need to use every day language to make their points. (So, I think we actually agree).