Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review: Barbarism & Civilization

Barbarism & Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time by Bernard Wasserstein

Wasserstein is the Harriet and Ulrich Meyer Professor of History at the University of Chicago and has many works--both fiction and non--to his credit. He opens his survey of 20th century Europe with a quote from Walter Benjamin: "There is no document of civilization...that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism." Wasserstein continues:
During the past century Europe was the scene of some of the most savage episodes of collective violence in the recorded history of the human species. Yet the same period has also seen incontestable improvements in many aspects of the life of most inhabitants of the continent: human life has been extended, on average, by more than half; standards of living have increased dramatically; illiteracy has been all but eliminated; women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals have advanced closer to equality of respect and opportunity.
Wasserstein has set himself the task of describing these improvements amidst a century of war and strife. His 20th century begins in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, and he sets the stage by explaining that there are two ways of looking at Europe in that year: backwards to a time of peace, prosperity and stability or "forwards and see the early tremors of social and international upheaval--the beginning of the end of the Eurocentric world." As he points out, the logic of the former approach is that "contemporaries could look back much more easily than they could see ahead." And what they saw was pretty positive, but under the veneer, trouble was brewing.

The veneer included the emergence of a middle-class, the bourgeoisie, as well as of the intellectual classes. Yet, this was also the time of the rise of the trade union. Together, forces converged and the raising of class consciousness led to “class conflict” and the emergence of various ideological movements such as Marxism and various socialist derivatives. But Europe's coming discord lay not in ideology--not yet.
The root of European disorder in 1914 was not…class, but ethnicity. Solidarities and antagonisms based on ethnicity, for reasons that lie buried in human hearts, answer to some of the most deeply rooted and instinctive social feelings of our species. European history in our time shows how futile it is to ignore them.
This is an argument that, for me, immediately called to mind Patrick Geary’s thesis in his Myth of Nations, but others have made the same observation. It is only one lesson learned (if not heeded) in the aftermath of the Great War. Another would be that conflict “inevitably increased the power of central governments, civil liberties, and diminished the ability of parliaments, courts, or public opinion to check the authority of governments and armed forces.” Still other lessons were better remembered and put to use in WWII such as the theory of “total war” involving both the military and the civilian population.

Wasserstein’s telling of the post WWI European revolutions is compelling and informative. (As a European history naïf, I was unaware that the U.S. had sent troops to help bolster the anti-Bolshevik forces). His explanation of how the Bolshevik’s won is a good example of his ability to synthesize and summarize a bit of military history for the layman:
In the Civil War the Bolsheviks had virtually the whole world and a largepart of the former Russian Empire ranged against them. Yet they won. The primary reason was the disunity of their enemies, who shared neither common aims nor a common strategy. Unlike their enemies, the Bolsheviks enjoyed the advantage of holding the centre and consequently of relatively secure internal lines of communication. They controlled the bulk of the population and of war industry.
In detailing the post-war peace process, Wasserstein returns to his cassus belli nationalism informed by ethnicity:
The diplomacy of the peacemakers, clothed in the garb of national self-determination and peaceful resolution of disputes, was sullied at several points by the crude imposition of national interests and by acquiescence in the use of force. The illusion was nevertheless created of a new order in which righteousness would reign supreme.
Thus was the League of Nations born and the world fooled itself into thinking there could be everlasting peace. Meanwhile, Nazism and Fascism rose. Fascism, writes Wasserstein, was:
...a primitive rationalization of gangsterism rather than a political philosophy in the conventional sense….Yet Fascism was vastly appealing to many. It promised to cut through the hypocrisy of the Giolittian spoils system, to restore order to society and the economy, to recreate the glory of the Roman Empire.
He has harsher words for Hitler’s Nazism
His movement was a revolt of the gutter, of losers who felt that, through no fault of their own, they had been thrown aside by respectable society and were determined to rise up and wreak their revenge. Apart from ill-defined dreams of racial domination, Hitler’s politics were inspired by no social vision. On the contrary, underlying his thought and actions was a barely hidden sociopathy: ‘What is stable’, he said, ‘is emotion, hatred.’ Hitler claimed to offer the German people a restoration of their national self-respect.
Wasserstein also compares Nazism with Communism and makes an interesting differentiation.
[Nazism] was an attempt to seize history by the collar and frog-march it in a direction determined primarily by the selfish interests and obsessive beliefs of those in power…[Communism‘s] claim, derived from Marx, [was] to be able to discern and to accelerate the underlying motive forces of history.
He also offers critical insight into the post-WWII mindset of those who survived. To wit, not only America has come to believe in a "greatest generation."
Each country, each national group, each political party fashioned its own version of the war and , as time went on, burnished remembrance and amnesia into self-serving myth. For some peoples, such as Serbs and Jews, a narrative of victimhood was a potion that came to serve as justification for resurgent nationalism. For the British, the lone struggle of 1940-1, the heroism of the few in the Battle of Britain and the many in the Blitz, reinvigorated national self-consciousness. For the French, the petty day-to-day accommodations that most had made with the occupier were overshadowed by the legend of resistance, that the Vichy regime had been made in France and supported, at least, initially, by the great majority of the French people.

For Germans the chief components of wartime memory were the agonies of the eastern front, the terror of Allied carpet-bombing of German cities, and the flight of civilian population from the path of the Russian army in East Prussia and elsewhere in the east…. From 1947 onwards the Cold War rendered the earlier struggle of the German army against Bolshevism somehow respectable. Military service on the eastern fron became a virtual badge of honour with all responsibility for the attendant atrocities against prisoners of war and civilians shunted onto the shoulders of the disbanded police state apparatus….For many Germans the terrible losses from Allied bombings of German cities somehow canceled out the crimes committed by the Nazis.
No country involved escaped the temptation to privilege “preferred memory” over history.

Wasserstein continues into the Cold War, which looms large in the second half of the century. But he also discusses post-WWII social and cultural changes spurred by both the memory of the conflict as well as the the re-drawing of national borders and the displacement of various peoples in its aftermath. He also explains why post-war Europe was fertile ground for the development of the welfare state.
Government spending everywhere had reached unprecedented levels during the war….High taxation, rationing, and government controls during the war had inured the possessing classes to a much greater degree of state control of the economy and society. Common sacrifice of soldiers and civilians of all classes had prepared minds for the application of egalitarian policies in the period of reconstruction. The warfare state…shaped the welfare state.
Wasserstein continues along, detailing the ebb and flow of the Cold War, de-colonization and the gradual movement towards European unity. (Of the last, an interesting counterpoint is the example of Belgium, which even now is experiencing tension based on the ethnically halved population of Flemish and Walloons.) The European youth uprisings of the '60s and the economic downturn of the 1970s culminated in the rise of neo-liberalism in Europe and the application of “Chicago school” economic theories here and there, particularly in Western Europe.

He continues until 2004, hitting all of the major touchstones. His final chapter offers a comparison between now and 1914.
Before 1914 undemocratic regimes interfered in the lives of the majority of ordinary people far less than the most liberal European governments of the new millennium. This was the paradox of the contemporary liberal state: it intruded in many unprecedented ways into the private sphere; yet liberty of the individual, measured by most reasonable criteria, had enormously increased in Europe by 2005 by comparison with 1914.

Two competing tendencies emerge from the dislocations of the pst century: on the one hand a growth of ruthlessness, manifested in wartime atrocities, criminality, and heightened racial hatreds; on the other, a growth of tenderness, exemplified in changed attitudes to the treatment of the mentally ill, the disabled, prisoners, children, and animals.
Barbarism and Civilization, indeed. But, pace Mark Steyn, demography is working against Europe and their ability to keep up the level of social welfare “civilization” to which they’ve become accustomed. The population is getting older and there are fewer young people (working fewer hours) to support them. And the short term solution of importing masses of immigrants, segregated from the rest of each particular nation’s mainstream culture, may have a higher cost in the long run. Ethnic-based nationalism is more dangerous when you are relying heavily upon a segregated “other” to maintain your way of life. Europe has to come up with a new way of dealing with this reality. But will it be a barbaric or a civilized method?

Wasserstein notes that throughout Europe, religion’s importance has drastically reduced. And he asks, “What could replace religion as a source of values?” Unfortunately, nothing has taken its place. And though “a variety of doctrines, mainly re-treads of old ideas” have been tried, “None, however, provided the scaffolding for an alternative social morality that could satisfy a majority in society.” Wasserstein’s final sentence gives us a depressing summary of the past century.
Evil stalked the earth in this era, moving men’s minds, ruling their actions, and begetting the lies, greed, deceit, and cruelty that are the stuff of the history of Europe in our time.
In that light, and keeping in mind the moral vacuum Wasserstein previously described, Europe seems ill-prepared to deal with the myriad problems it faces in a civilized manner. I hope he’s wrong.

All in all, B&C is a thick, weighty read with an important thesis. Wasserstein is a skilled synthesizer and a fluid writer and presents his topics in an engaging, if sometimes workmanlike, style. Barbarism and Civilization is a solid and insightful recounting of Europe's past century.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Historical Premature Ejac---er---speculation

Hey, I know he's a favorite whipping boy of a good many in the historical "profession." But this observation by Victor Davis Hanson is a truism, like it or not (via Dale Light).
Critics are not allowed to stop history at a convenient point — at Abu Ghraib, the pull-back from Fallujah, or the bombing of the dome at Samara — and then pass final judgment whenever they wish. If Lincoln had quit after Cold Harbor, Wilson after the German Spring offensive of 1918, or Roosevelt after the fall of the Philippines, then their presidencies would have failed and the U.S. today would be a far weaker — or perhaps nonexistent — country.

History instead will assess Iraq when it ends. {emphasis added}
When historians pass judgment on contemporary or ongoing historical moments, isn't there a temptation to shape the narrative so that it continues to fit their prediction? Remember when George W. Bush was picked as the worst president ever? Or how about Harry Truman? Time and considered evaluation--some would even call it revisionism!--have a way of changing the contemporary conventional wisdom into the opposite.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"What Hath God Wrought"

The Oxford History of The United States has a new volume, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe. I have great respect for Howe's work (I've mentioned him in the past) and look forward to reading the book. Here's a teaser from an NRO interview:
JOHN J. MILLER: Why did you choose the text of Samuel F. B. Morse’s first telegraphic message as the title for your book?

The quotation “What Hath God Wrought” works well for me in three ways. In the first place it calls attention to the dramatic technological changes characteristic of the years between 1815 and 1848, revolutionizing communication and transportation. In the second place, this quotation from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) illustrates the importance of religion in the history of the period. And in the third place, it calls attention to the idea that in rising to transcontinental power, the United States was fulfilling a divine providential destiny, a self-image that America shared with ancient Israel, to which the phrase originally applied.
I already like the triple-threat, er,-themed approach. Now all I have to do is clear my desk of about 5 other books I need to read and review!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Historians for JFK...I mean, Obama

Historians for Obama has been formed to, well, support Barack Obama for President (h/t Ralph Luker). Scott Jaschick has more. a move that is unusually early and specific, a group of prominent historians on Monday issued a joint endorsement of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. The endorsement, released through the History News Network, was organized by Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, and Ralph E. Luker, a historian who is one of the leaders of the popular history blog Cliopatria. The scholars who signed included two past presidents of the American Historical Association — Joyce Appleby of the University of California at Los Angeles and James McPherson of Princeton University — and many other A-list scholars in the field.

Officials of the AHA (which was not a party to the endorsement) and several other long-time observers of the discipline said that they could not think of a comparable example of historians collectively taking a stand in a political race in this way.
It turns out that about half of the historians approached by Kazin and Luker signed on. The other half abstained or were supporting other candidates like Edwards and Clinton. Some historians even thought Obama was too "Republican." No Republicans were mentioned as having the support of any of the historians who declined.

That's surprising.

According to Jaschick, Kazin said "while he and other scholars felt an obligation as 'scholar/citizens' to speak out, they did not want to imply that historians are uniquely qualified to pick a president." Sounds like a little bit of false modesty: why call the group "Historians for Obama" unless you're trying to cast a certain air of expertise about your whole endorsement. Not a big deal, really.

In reading the HfO statement, it seemed to me that they believe in the power of Obama's personality above all else. His domestic agenda seems of the typical, mainstream liberal variety and his foreign policy agenda seems both naive and overly-idealistic (for instance, they reference his idea to abolish nuclear weapons). No matter. To these historians, he's JFK: The Sequel.

But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness - or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.

Presumably, Obama's power of personality will be enough to both abolish nuclear weapons ("Wait 'til the Chinese and Russians meet him, they won't be able to resist!"). If only.

But to be fair, the desire for the HfO to see the qualities of a past (beloved) champion (JFK) isn't unique: the GOP has been trying to find "the next Reagan" since he left office. Ideologues of all stripes have their own pantheon of personalities and it's only natural to try to recapture what--to our own minds--seemed to work before. But I think history shows that past performance of one individual doesn't predict the future performance of another--even if they seem so similar to our (rose-colored) eyes.

But maybe I'm just a cynical GenXer. This is just my opinion, anyhow, and the HfO are entitled to theirs.

Finally, I think I see what's really going on here. Oprah Winfrey is a high-profile Obama supporter and--through her "book club"--she can single-handedly vault a book into bestseller status. This is nothing more than a clever network marketing campaign on the part of these historians. Watch for a deluge of scholarly history tomes getting recommendations from Oprah in the coming months. It's a conspiracy based on self-interest and materialistic gain, I tells ya!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Barzun on History (via Nat'l Review)

The November 19, 2007 issue of National Review contains an "Appreciation" of Jacques Barzun by M. D. Aeschliman. Similar pieces have been penned in the New Yorker and New Criterion and all were inspired on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The plaudits are well deserved. Barzun is the sort of public intellectual and polymath that we rarely see nowadays. I was first exposed to Barzun when one of my former professors (a practicing psycho-historian) sent me along a selection of articles on psycho-history, including an excerpt from Barzun's Clio and the Doctors, a skeptical critique of quantitative and other "scientific" methods of doing history. Later, I read much more of Barzun in my historical methods class (his book with Henry Graff, The Modern Researcher, was an assigned text) and have enjoyed his work on historical theory (among other things!) ever since. Here's a bit from the NR piece:
It is Barzun’s contention that history is fundamentally made by individuals, and that all forms of determinism are grievously mistaken and destructive. Human liberty is an absolute datum of consciousness and reality: The human person’s “supreme pleasure and prerogative,” he writes, “is to feel himself at once a moral being and a natural philosopher.” No subjectivist, Barzun is nevertheless a rootand- branch opponent of two dominant modern intellectual extremes and errors: scientific reductionism (“what it reduces is the individual”) and histrionic subjectivism, dominant in the modern arts, a kind of permanent childishness: “We are permissive, not from love of liberty, but because we lack self-control and fear restraint as such,” he wrote 40 years ago. “We praise innocence because we want the license to behave like an infant.” These extremes congeal into intellectual attitudes and institutional forms in the culture and the schools: the scientistic worship of material procedures and objects, and the anarchic exaltation of aesthetic eccentricity and “self-expression” (what C. S. Lewis called “a world of incessant autobiography”).

Though inevitably and consciously a philosophical historian, Barzun is rightly suspicious and critical of all works on “the philosophy of history”—from Marx and Hegel through Spengler and Toynbee—that deny human agency and novelty. “A trend is variable and may be reversed,” he wrote in 1964, “as history, which is the graveyard of trends and the birthplace of counter-trends, amply shows.” Communism is dead, though its Western historical trumpet E. J. Hobsbawm is still alive and sounding. There is no monocausality and no determinism in history:
The “relentless” modern “drive to de-anthropomorphize,” to “unman” the human person, Barzun writes, must be shown to be not only logically false but emotionally demoralizing and politically harmful.

In addition to his timely 1941 critique of Marxism—at the high point of Western intellectual sympathy for and collaboration with Communism—Barzun’s lifelong hostility to the implicit, incessant, invalid philosophizing of Darwin and the Darwinians (increasingly explicit and vocal today) isone of his most courageous and illuminating achievements as an intellectual historian and civic moralist. In the 1870s the German Darwinist biologist Haeckel wrote to Darwin to congratulate and praise him for having “shown man his true place in nature . . . thereby overthrowing the anthropocentric fable.” Barzun’s teacher Hayes, Barzun himself, his student Fritz Stern, and Richard Weikart in his recent From Darwin to Hitler have shown in detail how historically and morally disastrous this transgressive philosophical dehumanization was for the Western mind. Barzun quotes a 20th-century “positivistic” French jurist as writing: “Responsibility, which is the foundation of the penal code, eludes scientific analysis and is thus a source of error and confusion.” Like Dostoevsky and C. S. Lewis, Barzun repeatedly argues that “learned foolishness” is the most dangerous folly of all, especially when clothed with the authoritative mantle of high science as in “the behavioral idea that mind and purpose are illusions.”

Barzun’s rationality is never reductive or arbitrary: “Life, which spurs desire and fills the mind, is wider than science or art or philosophy or all together. Mind encloses science, not the other way around.” Yet the radical voluntarists and irrationalists—whether historians or artists—are also mistaken: We are conditioned rational beings with implicit obligations to civilization as an ideal and partial reality. Among early modern thinkers, Barzun particularly admires Erasmus and Swift in this regard. In “Swift, or Man’s Capacity for Reason,” he wrote in the somber year 1946: “The axioms of social reason have a long history in Western culture, and Swift met them again and again in his favorite authors . . . Herodotus, Lucian, St. Augustine, Dante, Rabelais, and Montaigne.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review: The Dead Guy Interviews

The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations with 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious, and Deceased Personalities in History by Michael A. Stusser.

Michael A. Stusser is a Seattle-based journalist who authors the "Accidental Parent" column in ParentMap magazine and has written for an eclectic array of magazines, including mental_floss, Seattle Magazine, Yoga International Magazine, Law & Politics and Go World Travel Magazine. Stusser is also a game inventor with The Doonesbury Game (with Garry Trudeau), EARTHALERT, The Active Environmental Game, and Hear Me Out to his credit. And sometimes he blogs.

The premise of The Dead Guy Interviews (though there are some Gals included, too) is simple: what if you could sit down with a historical figure and ask him or her a few questions? Stusser has taken the concept and run with it. The result is a series of irreverant, contemporized and humorous 3-4 page "interviews" where no topic is off the table. However, betwixt and between the sometimes sophomoric humor, bits of profanity and sarcastic banter (and a lot of talk about the sexual picadilloes of various interviewees--Stusser leaves no stone unturned in this area), you may actually learn something.

A good part of the actual historical information about each individual is provided in the brief biographical sketches preceding each interview. For instance, in the introduction to his interview with George Washington Carver, we learn:
Though recruited by big shots such as friend Henry Ford, Carver kept it real, turning down an annual slary of over $100,000 to work for Thomas Edison and refusing to consult with Stalin on agricultural matters.
This passage is typical of the way Stusser educates while "keeping it real" via the use of modern day colloquialisms. Here's another:
MS:...Tell me, what was the Globe Theatre like?

William Shakespear: Lovely venue, almost like one of your so-called open-air stadiums today.

MS: Like a football stadium?

WS: If you must make fool-hearted analogies. We had seating in the round, and VIP boxes up high. Sadly, the acoustics sucked.

MS: Did you just say "sucked?"
Stusser also asks Charles Darwin about the Darwin Awards. The method works pretty well, especially for the teenager crowd. That's not to say that adults won't be entertained, though. Stusser does a good job of interspersing information in the midst of his tongue-in-cheek question and answer sessions. Aside from the introductory bios, Stusser's interviews often help flesh out the ideas and personalities of some of these historical characters. For instance, I learned something basic about Buddha's philosophy (of which I know almost nothing about) by reading this:
MS: As a prince you had it all. Your father, King Suddhodana, even arrange a marriage to a wonderful gal. But you left it all behind. Why?

B: At the age of twenty-nine I finally looked beyond the walls of the palace. There I saw four sights.

MS: An old crippled guy, a diseased dude, a decayed, nasty corpse, and an ascetic, right?

B: The truth of life: that death, disease, age, and pain are inescapable. Poor outnumber the wealthy, and the pleasures of the rich eventually come to nothing.
This is typical of Stusser's method and works to either give the reader all the information she wants or inspire deeper investigation.

Stusser also folds in criticism of the contemporary in these interviews. While interviewing Beethoven about his life as a struggling artist, Beethoven reveals what he would have done to make some money in today's music business, "The real money would have been in concessions--Beethoven T-shirts, crop-tops, posters. Oh, to do it all over again."

Stusser also uses these interviews as a vehicle to critique current politics (both as interviewer and subject). He is especially prone to slamming those of a particular ideological bent. A sampling:
Catherine the Great:"The nobles liked some of my policies. Land giveaways, granting them serfs, eliminating taxes.

Michael Stusser: Sounds like a Republican.


Confucious: Taking a moral high ground is difficult in an era of greed, ego, and instant gratification. Many should not lead, this is a certainty. Others should not attempt to.

MS: So, you're talkin' about guys like Rush Limbaugh and Don Rumsfeld, right?


MS: When you moved back to Catalonia after World War II, you were criticized for living in Spain while it was ruled by Franco.

Salvador Dali: And I could say the same thing about you and your president. Pick any one of your warmongering heads of state--and yet you live among them!


Thomas Jefferson: Women have a great purpose in life: marriage, children, and pleasing their husbands.

MS: You should have your own show on right-wing radio...
By no means is the book full of such instances--its more like a sprinkling--but there are enough instances to make it clear that Stusser is no fan of "the right." On the other hand, Stusser also isn't concerned with being considered politically correct:
MS: What was your view on black advancement?

George Washington Carver: Rising or falling, I believe, is practically inherent in an individual. Races and nations, too: They progress or are held back by the number of individuals who do the right thing. God works in the hearts of men, and the so-called Negro problem will be solved in His own good time, and in His own way.

MS: So African Americans had themselves to blame for not achieving higher status in the South?

GWC: Ya know, I try and avoid public statements on my philosophy and mainly stick to peanuts...


Ghengis Khan: Are you calling me a mongoloid?

MS: No. That's a derogatory term for retard. You're obviously not a retard.
Perhaps the humor--or irony--is going over my head, here. To be clear, Stusser often does use actual quotes from the individuals, so some of these may derive from that method. But it seems pretty close to the line.

A couple more things. First, stylistically, Stusser sometimes writes in dialect to give voice to many of his subjects (Einstein, Freud, Marx, Mussolini, to name a few)--for example, he will use "zees" for "this." This was distracting to me on the page, though it works better in audio versions of the book. Second, I noted a small editing error. One of Benjamin Franklin's pen names is given as Silence Dogwood (it was "Dogood").

Stusser is good at dispensing with the sort of urban legends and historical myths that have grown up around various figures. For example, he takes down nearly every common myth about George Washington (cherry trees, etc.) and explains that Nostradamus' prophecies were "Full of vague allegory and ambiguity, readers have interpreted them over the centuries for their own purposes and often see what they want to see."

Many of his chapters--those on Thomas Jefferson and George Washington come to mind--would probably serve as an interesting introduction to teenagers of a more nuanced historical picture of these figures. Others, however, are a bit more caricature or even a little "fluffy." (For instance, compare the rough treatment J. Edgar Hoover experienced to the non-judgemental, fluffy interview of Karl Marx--he does take it to Chairman Mao though!). But that's OK. Sometimes Stusser is like Mike Wallace, sometimes he's like Barbara Walters.

In the end, Stusser's The Dead Guy Interviews is entertaining and gets you to think. If you can get past some of the profanity and sex (and small amount of ideological stumping) then I'd recommend it as a good nightstand book or, with some qualifications, as a way to get your teenager more interested in history.

Monday, November 12, 2007

More Insight into Archives, the Clinton Records, and NCH Reporting

The Clinton records saga rolls on. Maarja Krusten has commented on my last post and adds some helpful insight into the problems faced by archivists in her HNN articles When Archivists Deal with Power Players and Look Before You Leap into Presidential Libraries . In the comments, Krusten notes:
As someone who once worked with Presidential records as an employee of the National Archives (I now work as an historian elsewhere), I haven’t found that NCH, AHA or any outside source does a very good job at illuminating issues relating to the Presidential Libraries that the Archives administers.

Presidential Libraries have an archival component and a museum component. Dr. Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor of art history, does a good job in looking at the museum angle in his book, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, but no one really has looked at the archival side in depth. With so little out there, I’m not surprised many people fill the void with speculation or even their own biases, as a result. Opening records actually is very complicated because few human beings would face with equanimity the opening of their paper trails during their lifetimes. But I don’t think our culture permits former Presidents, regardless of party, to admit that this can be scary.

The press largely focuses on individual controversies and usually fails to provide sufficient context for readers. Pundits and editorial writers often look at the issues through a narrow lens, offer a set point of view, or leave out some information altogether....It is not useful to the National Archives for newspapers to frame issues in a political manner.


Much depends on the people involved. As a result, the traditional framing, with Republicans cast as the withholders of records and Democrats cast as supporters of disclosure, doesn’t always fit. Gerald Ford believed that "presidential papers, except for the most highly sensitive documents involving our national security, should be made available to the public . . . and the sooner the better." By all accounts, the release of his records went smoothly. His Library has a good reputation among the Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives.

You really have to consider the psychology of disclosure, why it can be difficult to achieve, and also to consider the potential challenges for the National Archives as a subordinate agency within the executive branch. As someone who has grappled with these issues, I don't find what AHA or NCH -- or most outsiders -- write to be nearly as nuanced as I would like.
Krusten also points out that the NCH has updated their reporting on the Clinton Records story and its nice to see that they have begun to include more sources (like the Newsweek piece or the work of the NY Sun) that contain criticisms of the Clintons. Apparently, the NCH has realized that there may be two sides to the story and that their "traditional framing" (Krusten's phrase) may not stack up.

It is not true that all of the records relating to the Clinton Administration’s Health Care Task Force have already been released. As noted above, the National Archives has admitted that over three million paper documents and e-mails relating to the topic remain under review at the Clinton Library.

And what is the practical impact of the letter that President Clinton sent to the National Archives in 2002, which Tim Russert alleged was delaying the release of records relating to then First Lady Hillary Clinton? According to an article in the New York Sun this week, it may not be that relevant after all.

The Sun interviewed attorney Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represented the American Historical Association in its lawsuit to overturn President Bush’s Executive Order 13233....Nelson told the Sun, “It [the letter] starts off saying, ‘I want to be really open about this stuff,’ but, you know if you compare the categories that he [President Clinton] says would be considered for withholding. . . .they encompass most of what is within the scope of these restrictions.” He went on to say that the former president’s letter would not change “99.4% of what the [advice] restriction category applies to in the first place.”

Monday, November 05, 2007

The NCH and Clinton Records - A Comment, A Response

In a comment to my last post concerning how the NCH is playing the ongoing Clinton records debate, "allida" writes:
I have worked in presidential records for more than a decade and edit a documentary edition which contain vast numbers of presidential records. Furthermore, I have relied on FOIAs for the past decade in my research on the policy work First Ladies conducted while in the White House.

Consequently, I know this procedure inside out and backwards.

The NCH is explaining procedures correctly--and accurately. It took me 10 years to get material on Nancy Reagan. Barbara Bush's records are frozen. And a significant amount of Rosalynn Carter's papers are unaccessible because Carter Library staff is so short it cannot accession already processed (and open) material.

Just because 1) NCH took the time to explain the law and the current NARA staffing crisis,2) the Archives doesn't have the staff to meet the high demand of FOIAs, and 3) Clinton muffed the answer, doesn't mean there is bias.
I appreciate the insight and, like I said before, I want open access, too. I also don't find fault with the NCH's explanation as far as it goes. I just don't think they are explaining enough. In their press releases they don't seem to put much stock in the possibility that President Clinton may actually have something to do with holding up the release of his own records.

And while he says he wants open access, President Clinton sure does exclude a lot of documents in his memo to NARA asking for a quick release, including "communications directly between the President and First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature." That sure covers a lot, doesn't it?

Hey maybe it isn't bias. Maybe the NCH is just being sloppy in their reporting.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cliopatria Awards 2007 - Nominations Open

Nominations for the 2007 Cliopatria Awards for History blogs are now being accepted.
The Cliopatria Awards recognize the best history writing in the blogosphere. There will be awards in six categories:

Cliopatria, as host of the awards, is ineligible for the "Best Group Blog" category. Individual judges are ineligible for nomination in their respective categories, but may be nominated for other awards. Judges may also make nominations in other categories.

Bloggers, blogs and posts may be nominated in multiple categories. Individuals may nominate any number of specific blogs, bloggers or posts, even in a single category, as long as the nominations include all the necessary information (names, titles, URLs, etc).

Nominations will be open through November; judges will make the final determinations in December. The winners will be announced at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in early January 2008; winners will be listed on HNN and earn the right to display the Cliopatria Awards Logo on their blog.

Get on over and make some suggestions! Oh, and here are the past winners.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Clintons Keep Records Closed, NCH Still Blames Bush II

The NCH website finally put up a story about the Clinton records brouhaha that came to the fore during the recent Democratic Presidential debate (I posted about it yesterday--and the AHA is still silent). Kudos to them for finally paying attention to something that's been brewing for a couple months, guys! But after reading the last two paragraphs, it's evident that the NCH is focused like a laser on the real baddie in all this:

This presidential debate only added to what has become a media firestorm over the issue of whether the Clinton’s are obstructing the release of her records or whether the Bush administration’s Executive Order 13233 is responsible for delays in the processing and release of documents at not just the Clinton library, but the Reagan and Bush libraries as well. An article in the Washington Post blamed both the Clinton’s and the Bush administration for the delays. And, a lengthy piece in Newsweek sharply criticized the Clinton’s alleging that they have been less than forthcoming in the release of their papers.

Unfortunately, the media coverage has ignored the fact that consideration of legislation (H.R. 1255) in the Senate to overturn Executive Order 13233 continues to be blocked by Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) at the behest of the White House who has threatened to veto the bill. (emphasis added)

Well, I guess we know who the NCH blames (surprise!). It seems as if the NCH finally--and reluctantly--brought up the possibility of the Clintons being responsible for withholding their own records only after the story got too big for them to ignore. Because the NCH has certainly been ignoring most of the media accounts critical of the Clintons.

In an earlier story, the NCH seemed more than happy to quote from a piece in which President Clinton blamed the Bush Adminstration for holding up the release of Clinton Administration records. But in this latest piece, they only allude to the NEWSWEEK piece critical of the Clintons and don't actually quote anything from it. Instead, they try to delegitimize the story as just part of a confusing "media firestorm" on their way to blaming the media for not covering "the real story" that the Executive Order is completely to blame for the holdup.

Now let me be clear here: I agree with repealing the Executive Order and allowing greater access more quickly (assuming that information in the records isn't critical to national security, of course) . What troubles me is the one-sided play the NCH is giving the Clinton story. In this particular case, repealing the Executive Order would remove some roadblocks to gaining access to the Clintons' records (and it would also remove the cover that the Clintons are currently hiding behind), but it also appears that the Clintons will still manage to keep the flow of information to a slow trickle--at least until after the 2008 Presidential election.

Then who will the NCH blame?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Clintons Keep Records Closed, AHA and NCH Still Blame Bush

I wonder if the AHA and the NCH are readying there complaints and resolutions concerning open access to Clinton family documents now that we know that it's the Clinton's--not the Bush Administration--that is holding up access.

The Clinton's have blamed the Bush Administration for holding up the release of Presidential documents and initially the media (and the AHA and NCH) bought their line. But maybe not anymore. Some Democrats (Sen. Obama, for instance) and the media are now asking questions.

When author Sally Bedell Smith was researching her new book about Bill and Hillary Clinton's White House years, she flew to Little Rock to visit the one place she thought could be an invaluable resource: the new William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Smith was hoping to inspect records that could shed light on what role the First Lady played in her husband's administration. But Smith quickly discovered the frustrations of dealing with a library critics call "Little Rock's Fort Knox."

An archivist explained to Smith that the release of materials was tightly controlled by the former president's longtime confidant Bruce Lindsey. Could she look at memos detailing the advice Hillary gave Bill during debates over welfare reform? Smith asked. No, the archivist said, those memos were "closed" to the public because they dealt with "policy" matters. What about any records that show what advice Bill gave his wife about her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign? Those, too, were closed, the archivist said, because they dealt with "political" matters. "He essentially told me I had no chance of getting anything," says Smith...

Bill Clinton has tried to cast blame for the backlog on the Bush White House...[b]ut White House spokesman Scott Stanzel tells NEWSWEEK the Bush White House has not blocked the release of any Clinton-era records, nor is it reviewing any....Ben Yarrow, a spokesman for Bill Clinton, says the former president was referring "in general" to a controversial 2001 Bush executive order—recently overturned, in part, by a federal judge—that authorized more extensive layers of review from both current and former presidents before papers are released. (Hillary's campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.)

But documents NEWSWEEK obtained under a FOIA request (made to the Archives in Washington, not the Clinton library) suggest that, while publicly saying he wants to ease restrictions on his records, Clinton has given the Archives private instructions to tightly control the disclosure of chunks of his archive. Among the document categories Clinton asked the Archives to "consider for withholding" in a November 2002 letter: "confidential communications" involving foreign-policy issues, "sensitive policy, personal or political" matters and "legal issues and advice" including all matters involving investigations by Congress, the Justice Department and independent counsels (a category that would cover, among other matters, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and the pardons of Marc Rich and others). Another restriction: "communications directly between the President and First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature."

Archives officials say Clinton is within his legal rights. But other Archives records NEWSWEEK reviewed show Clinton's directives, while similar, also go beyond restrictions placed by predecessors Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, neither of whom put any controls over the papers of their wives.
In the recent Democratic Presidential debate, Senator Clinton tried to dodge the issue:
The question of experience came up repeatedly, and Mrs. Clinton wasn't shy about citing her time as first lady as a main qualification to be President. She was less forthcoming about the records of her time in the White House, however. Mr. Russert asked: "In order to give the American people an opportunity to make a judgment about your experience, would you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the President, the advice you gave, because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012?"

Mrs. Clinton's initial response was to blame the Archives, but Mr. Russert asked whether she would lift her husband's "ban" on releasing their correspondence. "That's not my decision to make," was her reply. Apparently we are supposed to believe that the former President would refuse his wife's request to release those records if she asked. Even gentle Mr. Obama couldn't bite his tongue about that one, comparing the episode to the "secretive" Bush Administration.

If they wanted to, the AHA and NCH should know the Clinton's are the ones hiding things. But that doesn't seem to fit their narrative. Earlier this month, the NCH trumpeted the fact that President Clinton wants to open his records faster:
Former President Bill Clinton recently jumped into the political debate surrounding the disposition of presidential records. A story in the October 4, 2007, New York Sun reported that President Clinton recently asserted that the Bush administration was at fault for delaying the release of his records.

“I want to open my presidential records more rapidly than the law requires, and the current administration has slowed down the opening of my own records,” the former president was quoted as saying in the Sun article. “And I do think that I will have extra responsibilities for transparency should the American people elect Hillary president,” he went on to say. The White House had no reaction to President Clinton’s statement.

The White House denied the claim, but the NCH didn't see fit to publish the story about the denial on their website.

"The White House is not currently reviewing any Clinton presidential records because none are ripe for White House review," a spokesman for Mr. Bush, Trey Bohn, said yesterday. "All current requests for Clinton administration records are pending review by President Clinton's designated representative. The White House can take no action on any of the requests until the Clinton representative has completed its review of the records relevant to each request and reached a decision on either authorizing their release or withholding them."
Additionally, it seems the NCH is unaware that President Clinton has the ability to release his records at any time.

In 2003, Mr. Clinton announced that he planned to make public most of the confidential advice he received, even though federal law allows such advice to be kept secret for 12 years after a president leaves office.

When the Clinton Library opened in 2004, thousands of pages were available for review sooner than the law required. More than half a million pages selected by Mr. Clinton and archivists are currently open to research.

However, hardly any documents have been released in response to records requests from the public, which the library began accepting in January 2006. Archives officials have indicated that the presidential review process for all Clinton White House records released so far has averaged eight months. A spokeswoman for the archives, Miriam Kleiman, declined to discuss whether aides to Messrs. Clinton or Bush have been responsible for the delays.

The AHA and NCH have continually blamed the Bush Administration for withholding records. Now it has been revealed that President Clinton is responsible for blocking access to his Presidential records. He's within his legal rights to do so, but I would think that--within the spirit of open access--both the AHA and NCH would spill at least a smudge of ink on the fact that the Clinton's are putting up roadblocks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Utility of Using Google to Find Medieval History in the News

I'm an "Americanist" but I have to admit that I have the most fun digging into the history of Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages. About a year ago, I set up three key-word alerts via Googles news spider: "Dark Ages", "medieval" and "medievalist". I figured they'd give me a heads-up for interesting stories that may crop up from time to time. The results have been interesting, and maybe even illustrative.

By far, the most predictable results have been related to the "medievalist" search term. Pretty much every story is about some professor who will be giving a talk somewhere or who has written a book. "Medieval" has also been predictable, but for different reasons. While many of the stories (this is anecdotal, I didn't keep stats) were about various topics in medieval history, I could always count on a story or two about the "Medieval Warm Period" showing up. In the debate about global warming, the MWP has a large role to play. Nonetheless, using "medieval" (or a permutation) does provide good results.

And then there's "Dark ages." Rarely do stories containing this term actually have anything to do with medieval history. Mostly, it's used as a rhetorical pejorative against something or other that the author believes is backwards or barbaric. As such, it's essentially useless as a search term for finding new stories on medieval matters.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Quick Guide to History of Conservatism

Fred Hutchinson offers up the history of 5 strains of conservatism. I excerpt those that have medieval roots:
1) Traditionalist conservatism (first appeared in the 8th century BC)...

Medieval: Venerated heroes and saints. Defended the honor of the family. Viewed the family as a community of souls, living and dead, stretching back to the primordial past. Lived in tightly woven communities of long continuance. The ancients were seen as giants in wisdom in contrast to their own modest understanding. Venerated the literary classics. Taught the seven liberal arts.

3) Christian conservatism (1st century AD)

Roman and Medieval: Marriage, family, church, community and government are ordained of God for our good and we are obliged to submit to these institutions. The government must fight evil. "Christendom," or Christ's kingdom, is gradually being formulated in society as God works through the church. The church has a mission for the spiritual formation of souls. It also has a mission to educate the people, to develop the leaders of society and to sponsor culture. Man is fallen and needs redemption, restraint, and holy fear. For "athletes of Christ," the potential for personal holiness is great.


4) Natural law conservatism (13th century)

Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu. Also called "classical liberalism." Man has a nature according to the Creator's design. By nature he is entitled to certain freedoms and bound by certain duties. Human reason is the means by which we discover these rights and the duties. The universal moral law and the laws of nature are binding upon man. The main role of government is to protect human rights. There are certain activities such as the police and the military which government can offer but men cannot provide for themselves. The legitimate role of government is limited. Men form a social contract with government — men will submit to government and government will protect their rights.
The missing are 2) Neoconservatism and 5) Libertarianism. Interestingly, of the 5, my own conservatism is a mix of the three above.

Congress Locks up the Kennewick Man, AHA Missing In Action Again

National Review editorializes:
[U]nder the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) — a well-meaning law passed in 1990 — tribes can lay claim to cultural objects and human remains locked away in federally funded museums or unearthed on federal land. In order to do so, they must prove a reasonable connection between themselves and the objects they wish to obtain.

When Kennewick Man came to light, a coalition of tribes in the Pacific Northwest demanded the remains under the provisions of NAGPRA. They said they wished to bury the bones, making further study impossible. The Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over Kennewick Man, took steps to comply. But then a group of prominent scientists sued. In 2004, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scientists, pointing out that the modern tribes had failed to demonstrate an adequate link between themselves and the skeleton of a person who died more than nine millennia ago.

So the tribes turned to Congress. Two years ago, Sen. John McCain proposed altering NAGPRA’s definition of “Native American” from “of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States.” The new language would add two words: “, or was, indigenous...” McCain’s efforts failed, in part because of public objections. But now the change has slipped through in a bill of “technical corrections” that the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee has just approved.
While this is technically archaeology, shouldn't the AHA be interested? Where's their editorial arguing for safeguarding the profession and ensuring that we have timely access to items of the historical record (like Executive Orders that lengthen the duration of sealed Presidential records)? Would there be outrage if a bunch of Northern Europeans started putting a halt to bog-people autopsies?

Friday, October 05, 2007


Peter Schramm points to a piece by Robert Kaplan about how our modern-day soldiers "want our respect, not pity" and highlights this bit:
As one battalion commander complained to me, in words repeated by other soldiers and marines: ’Has anyone noticed that we now have a volunteer Army? I’m a warrior. It’s my job to fight.’ Every journalist has a different network of military contacts. Mine come at me with the following theme: We want to be admired for our technical proficiency--for what we do, not for what we suffer. We are not victims. We are privileged.
Kaplan led into this by explaining that our modern media coverage of the war "too often descends into therapy for those who are not fighting, rather than matter-of-fact stories related by those who are." Later, he offers a heroic example and portrays how media coverage has changed:
The first Medal of Honor in the global war on terror was awarded posthumously to Army Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith of Tampa, Fla., who was killed under withering gunfire protecting his wounded comrades outside Baghdad airport in April 2003.

According to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, his stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared with 4,677 for the supposed Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England. While the exposure of wrongdoing by American troops is of the highest importance, it can become a tyranny of its own when taken to an extreme.

Media frenzies are ignited when American troops are either the perpetrators of acts resulting in victimhood, or are victims themselves. Meanwhile, individual soldiers daily performing complicated and heroic deeds barely fit within the strictures of news stories as they are presently defined. This is why the sporadic network and cable news features on heroic soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan comes across as so hokey. After all, the last time such reports were considered "news" was during World War II and the Korean War.

In particular, there is Fox News's occasional series on war heroes, whose apparent strangeness is a manifestation of the distance the media has traveled away from the nation-state in the intervening decades. Fox's war coverage is less right-wing than it is simply old-fashioned, antediluvian almost. Fox's commercial success may be less a factor of its ideological base than of something more primal: a yearning among a large segment of the public for a real national media once again--as opposed to an international one. Nationalism means patriotism, and patriotism requires heroes, not victims.

In a post elsewhere, in which I discussed Ken Burn's "The War", I discussed how changes in the media had changed how we perceived war.
Yet the most striking thing [Katherine Phillips] said was that she didn't know how bad Guadalcanal was until after Sidney [her brother] came home. No one on the homefront did. The 5,000+ casualties weren't reported. The brutal fighting wasn't shown on Movietone.

In contrast, Katherine Phillips also talked about how the American public had been prepped for war against Nazi Germany for a few years prior to Pearl Harbor. The American public was shown some of the Nazi and Japanese atrocities on Movietone and they became convinced it was a moral imperative to act. When the time came, they were ready to go.

They also didn't equate Nazi or Japanese propaganda with U.S. war reporting. Looking back, there can be no doubt that the U.S. glossed over things. But even then, even if the American people had known more, I doubt that they would have considered the press releases of the enemy as just "another point of view." It points to how much faster and accurate our wartime information has become since then and that difference helps to explain, at least partially, why WWII is considered "The Good War" and why subsequent conflicts aren't.

But Kaplan's point about lost nationalism gets much closer to the difference between then and now. As we've internationalize and become more relativistic--sorry, we are--it is more difficult to choose sides, even if on one side is your own country. As Kaplan concludes:
[W]hile the U.S. still has a national military, it no longer has a national media to quite the same extent. The media is increasingly representative of an international society, whose loyalty to a particular territory is more and more diluted. That international society has ideas to defend--ideas of universal justice--but little actual ground. And without ground to defend, it has little need of heroes. Thus, future news cycles will also be dominated by victims.

The media is but one example of the slow crumbling of the nation-state at the upper layers of the social crust--a process that because it is so gradual, is also deniable by those in the midst of it. It will take another event on the order of 9/11 or greater to change the direction we are headed. Contrary to popular belief, the events of 9/11--which are perceived as an isolated incident--did not fundamentally change our nation. They merely interrupted an ongoing trend toward the decay of nationalism and the devaluation of heroism.

The Fallacy of the unchanging Dark Ages

The Dark Ages was a 1,000 year period of "no change" according to this guy:

For most of human history, change has been the exception. Our ancestors for nearly a million years used one basic tool, a hand axe chipped out of stone. They made these axes the same way, every time. Theirs was a culture in neutral.

The Dark Ages were likewise unblemished by change. For a thousand years, there was almost no invention, no new ideas and no exploration. Literacy was actively discouraged. Anything that might pass for progress was outlawed.
Yikes. How did we possibly, um, change then...if there was no change. Methinks the man should listen to Terry Jones before making those kinds of statements:

Q You write that our view of medieval life is unduly grim because historians maligned the period. It's easy to see why a nobleman might want to burnish his image by commissioning a writer to vilify a predecessor, but who would benefit from a campaign to disparage an era?

A A very interesting question. Well, in the first place, it would have been the thinkers of the Renaissance, who wanted to establish a break with the past. They also wanted to establish their own sense of importance by belittling what had gone before. This then gets taken up by the promoters of Renaissance culture who are keen to establish its supremacy over the medieval world -- particularly since the Renaissance is a backward-looking movement which harks back to the classical world rather than establishing something new.

In the 20th and 21st century, Renaissance values have been adapted to fit the modern capitalist world. The whole myth that there was no sense of human individuality before the Renaissance is part of this attempt to make the present day seem the culmination of human progress, which I don't think it is.

Q Then how did the unrealistic stereotypes of the noble knight and the ignorant, downtrodden peasant originate and why have they persisted?

A Well, undoubtedly you did have proud and unfeeling aristocrats who treated the peasants like dirt. Also, the Middle Ages is a wide span of time, and there were times and places where the peasantry would undoubtedly have been downtrodden and ignorant. So there is a basis for all that. But the little bit of history I'm interested in -- late 14th century England -- saw a rise in education and the pursuit of knowledge amongst ordinary people -- partly it was a result of the Black Death and the fact there were so few people around that everyone was questioning everything. But it was a time of intellectual activity amongst all classes. Much more so than today.

Q Washington Irving, who gave us "Rip van Winkle," apparently also contributed some fabrications that still distort our view of medieval life?

A Yes. He seems to have been responsible to a large degree for promoting the myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat and that this formed part of Church doctrine. It never did, and people didn't think the world was flat. Chaucer himself talks about "this world that men say is round." There's a fascinating book called "Inventing the Flat Earth" by Jeffrey Burton Russell, which sets the whole story out.

Q What does this tell us about the trustworthiness of historians, in general? Do you have any advice on how to spot a sound or flawed account of the past? Is there such a thing as history or only histories?

A Well, I think you're right that there is no such monolith as "history" in the singular. I think every age writes its own histories and I think it's important that they do. It's how we help to define ourselves and to know who and where we are. I don't think there is any rule of thumb to spot distorted history any more than there is to spot distorted news that we read today in the press or watch on TV.

The main thing is to be aware that the makers of "spin" are at work today just as much as they were in the Middle Ages or at any time in human history. It's all a bit like a detective story. We have to look for the motives behind what leaders do rather than take at face value the reasons that they give us. It's just the same with history.

Yup. And that's why I named this blog "Spinning Clio."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Why a Family Guy Won't Get a History PhD Any time soon

When I went back to school to get a degree in History for the fun of it, I thought (naively) that getting an MA was a logical first step. But as I progressed--and despite urgings from various prof's to go for the PhD, practical considerations came into play. First, assuming I could get into a "local" (ie; southern New England) History PhD program, it would be too expensive and take too long (h/t Ralph) for a guy trying to raise a family.
For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.... Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.
Well, since I started my MA at 34, I was already behind the curve! Oh well. I may not have been elite enough (via PhDinHistory) anyway:
First, doctoral students in history have come and continue to come disproportionately from relatively privileged family backgrounds. Second, the proportion and number of students in doctoral programs from first-generation college families is declining. This trend—if the weak data are sufficient to speak of a real trend—is relevant to both diversity and opportunity questions. And the data point to a third, more speculative point. The uncertainty of employment in history may be discouraging students from first-generation college families from pursuing history careers. One can understand their preference for more secure career paths, but the profession loses vitality and students of potential lose an opportunity to pursue what may be to them a substantively if not practically appealing life work.
Neither of my parents got their B.A., but all of their children have. For myself, I always loved history. Heck, in high school, I wanted to be a History teacher and a HS Soccer coach. But my parents steered me into engineering because, as they pragmatically pointed out, there is always a need for engineers. They were right. Sure, I still like History, but a PhD wasn't even on my radar coming out of High School.

Besides, being an engineer led to financial stability such that I could finally scratch that itch and get the MA. But the PhD just isn't practical for me right now, even though I'd absolutely love to do it.

PhDinHistory adds (check out his charts that illustrate the below):
I think we should be concerned by the way that history has suddenly become more elitist than almost every other major discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Like the authors in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, I worry that history faculty will have less and less in common with their students. I am concerned also that smart history majors from lower- and lower-middle-class households will be increasingly steered away from entering graduate programs in history. Lastly, I share the fear of the authors that this problem stems, at least in part, from the mismatch between PhD production and the demand for history faculty in the job market.
I think he's right on. Many of those "smart history majors from lower- and lower-middle-class households" already survived the temptations of following other, potentially more lucrative educational paths. They need to be encouraged to keep climbing the ivory towers. More diversity and more perspectives will strengthen profession. And maybe someday, people who have lived a portion of their adult life outside of the ivy walls will be better able to open the gates and climb the tower stairs.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I took the ISI History Quiz

I took the ISI History Test that so many college seniors at elite universities failed. Results:
You answered 57 out of 60 correctly — 95.00 %
Average score for this quiz during September: 75.3%
Average score since September 18, 2007: 75.3%
What did I get wrong?
Answers to Your Missed Questions:
Question #19 - C. philosopher kings.
Question #54 - D. can be reversed by government spending more than it taxes.
Question #58 - B. An increase in the volume of commercial bank loans.

Here are the questions and all possible answers (including my wrong ones) for the ones I missed:
19) In The Republic, Plato points to the desirability of:

That was a classic brain f**t on my part.

54) Keynesian economists conclude that the recession phase of a business cycle:
Eh. Economics ain't my strong suit...I suspect most historians can relate.

What is a major effect of a purchase of bonds by the Federal Reserve?
....And again....

All in all, I was surprised I did so well, frankly. While some are arguing the test is unfair because it doesn't adequately deal with big concepts, a knowledge of basic historical facts is necessary to support the "big picture" takeaway that colleges aim to teach. Besides, many of the questions do deal with concepts. For instance:
31) Which author’s view of society is presented correctly?

39) The question of why democracy leads to well-ordered government in America when disorder prevails in Europe is central to:

There is a lot of reading that goes into answering these questions, no?

Or how about:
35) The Monroe Doctrine:

13) The struggle between President Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans was mainly over:

44) The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964) was significant because it:
Doesn't understanding the "Monroe Doctrine" or why Johnson and the Radical Republicans were fighting display more than just knowing facts and figures. Aren't these the sort of historical concepts that many say should be tested?

And then there's question about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Heck, they even give the date to help you make an educated guess!

I can only surmise that the historians who take a negative view multiple choice tests--thinking "only" facts and dates can be tested--have probably not read the actual test. Maybe they should.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Cultural history is written by dissenters"

Rod Dreher calls attention to Alan Ehrenhalt's 1995 book "The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America," (PDF version here):
While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters -- by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up....The social critics of the past two decades have forced on our attention the inconsistencies and absurdities of life a generation ago: the pious skirt-chasing husbands, the martini-sneaking ministers, the sadistic gym teachers.

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don't tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they cold have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.