Sunday, January 20, 2013

History for History's Sake

In his 1969 article, "Second Thoughts on History at the Universities," British historian Sir Geoffrey Elton made the following recommendation:

Teachers of history must set their faces against the necessarily ignorant demands of 'society'...for immediate applicability. They need to recall that the 'usefulness' of historical studies lies hardly at all in the knowledge they purvey and in the understanding of specific present problems from their prehistory; it lies much more in the fact that they produce standards of judgment and powers of reasoning which they alone develop which arise from the very essence, and which are unusually clear-headed, balanced and compassionate.

Elton's view is likely to win at least public support from many academic historians, as much as it is equally likely to elicit public scorn from just about everyone else, particularly those outside of the humanities (and of those particularly scientists for whom usefulness is assumed, in the discipline if not always in the particular research project). Yet, in truth most historians today go to great lengths to contort themselves and their work to conform to expectations of social relevance. Every new paper, every new book is subjected to one degree or another to questions not just of how it advances human knowledge but how it might benefit human society. Most defenses are theoretical and superficial, but that they must be made at all reveals something.

It would be easy, not to mention self-serving, for me to now turn and defend a universal application of Elton's advice that history be pursued without regard for usefulness. After all, I have spent most of my admittedly short academic career studying the most utterly useless facts jotted into the marginalia of history. The more esoteric, the more alluring. But critics of the humanities in general and history in particular are largely correct. Rightly gone are the days when the government could and would subsidize the pursuit of knowledge of the sake of knowledge, particularly knowledge which has no clear future applicability. History is, in this respect, the worst academic offender.

Yet Elton is correct when his own language is allowed to limit the scope of his observation. The above are from reflections on "history at universities" and directed at "teachers of history." As history continues to be rightly scrutinized for its social value, it is important not to transfer criticisms of professional historians onto the discipline as a whole. Historical thinking--rather than the academic fruits of the professionalized application of historical thought--is in fact a necessary tool. It has been rightly observed that all humans are historical thinkers, existing as much in their reflection on their individual (and on our collective social) past as they do in the present. The "standards of judgment" and "powers of reasoning" that characterize self-conscious historical thought are crucial tools in the continued functioning of our species. If we allow our critique of ivory tower academics to come to bear on the general curriculum--in universities, but also in high school or middle school as well--then we jeopardize the intellectual future of our children.

It is not uncommon now--and this is true both of where I went to school and of the university I work for now--that undergraduates can be expected to take more than twice as much science as history, regardless of their intended field. The deeply incorrect assumption here is that people on average will need more biology in their lives than, for example, American history, more familiarity with chem-lab safety protocol than the causes and consequences of the communist revolution in China. The devaluing in the public mind of history, abetted as it has been by the increasing specialization in the discipline (e.g. a professor I know who studies only the history of agricultural technology in the plantation South), is poised to create a generation of historically and culturally illiterate actors, agents in the making of our ongoing history.

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