Wednesday, July 30, 2008


About the only thing that disappointed me in my personal transition from graduate student to professor is that the quality of debate declined. If there's one thing I miss about the early years of my PhD program, it is the long nights of beer and intellectual bravado in the company of real comrades who were out to get one another. Nothing that occurred in class ever equaled the satisfaction of those evenings of argument and disputation, where it seemed as though something was actually at stake, and the potential for damage to one's ego and one's reputation was very real. Having instigated and then lost a good many of those confrontations (some of the wounds still smart), I am eager to have another go, but, in my experience, excessive collegiality on the one hand and professional jealousy on the other has a chilling effect on argument among the professoriate, and what passes for debate at academic conferences is usually the most tedious and self-referential kind of casuistry. I am grateful for friendly colleagues (and also for indifferent ones - too many social obligations can be worse than none, after all) but there's also something to be said for the company of people with whom it is a real pleasure to disagree.

Back in the day, the most frequent source of argument was the epistemic gap that separated more old fashioned, empiricist historians such as myself from the purveyors of a fashionable form of nihilism called postmodernism. The "posties" liked to insist that history was not merely untenable as a discipline but really quite boring. My usual response was something to the effect of "physician, heal thyself" and to point out that their problem was that they viewed history in such a narrow light - a trait that, ironically, they shared with the most conservative members of the historical profession.

On the contrary, history is the most expansive and broadly encompassing of all scholarly disciplines. Whatever else it may be, history will always involve the study of the past, and there are therefore few matters that fall entirely outside its purview: the totality of the human experience is ripe for historical study. Historians can examine much more than politics and war: they can profit from reading the literature, listening to the music, and studying the art and architecture of the past, and it provides yet another avenue in which to explore the eternal questions of philosophy, science, and religion that serve as bridges between cultures and between bygone eras and our own. It would pose no difficulty for an historian to propose a plan of research that involved the study of 19th century biology; a biologist who was predisposed to study the history of the 19th century would have an uphill battle to fight for funding.

Small wonder, then, that history is one of very few academic disciplines that also has a huge lay following. One seldom meets amateur epidemiologists, and there are very few differential calculus "buffs", but history enthusiasts are everywhere to be found. True, there are many effective popularizations of science (anyone who has not read the late Stephen J. Gould really should) but science at the cutting edge is seldom accessible to non-specialists. By contrast, any interested lay reader can make her way through the latest history journals without much difficulty. Moreover, the casual reader of history has one supreme advantage over professional historians: he can read solely to satisfy his own curiosity about the past, and need not justify his preferences to hiring committees and funding agencies. To be sure, there is a decided preference in public tastes for military history, but the less sanguinary of mind can visit any good bookshop and discover works to satisfy any interest: from biographies of presidents to culinary history.

How stultifying by comparison is the way history is taught to young people - as a vast accumulation of immutable facts: names, dates, and places, to be committed to memory, allegedly for the purposes of producing better citizens - as if historians can claim to be better citizens than, say, dental hygienists. Were it up to the kind of people who run the dull and dour Dominion Institute, whose annual "history quiz" is nothing more than an exercise in trivial pursuit, there would be more rather than less of this sort of thing: nothing will satisfy such people until Canadians have memorized the "facts" of history - whether or not they understand them, apparently, is incidental.

Orwell's dystopia was terrifying in part because the state was able to manipulate history for its own purposes (much as the Dominion Institute would have history taught for the purposes of promoting Canadian nationalism) but Huxley's vision of totalitarianism was more frightening still, because it envisioned a society without a history at all. Fortunately, any argument about what history is, should be, or what purposes it serves, cannot definitively be resolved, for history is too expansive a discipline to be bounded within the confines of such concerns. Rather, good history, like good food, is a source of wonderment and delight in and of itself.


Alison Hunter said...

If I were the queen of everything (which I am not ... YET ...) I would make the scope of high school history classes smaller. In Ontario, the grade 9 Canadian History course isn't bad (it focuses on the 20th century) but I never even made it to the 70's when I taught it. The grade 10 American history course is literally supposed to encompass ALL of American history. Now, I've never had to teach it, but I'm sure that if I were given 10 months to teach all recorded American history, it would be extroardinarily insightful and meaningful. Piece of cake.

Andrew Denstedt said...

I agree with Alison that it would be frightening to be tasked with teaching the entirety of American history in a single school year. However, I'm not convinced that scope is the main problem.

Graham touched on a different issue when he said that students were presented with a "vast accumulation of immutable facts". If students are presented with a single version of history it doesn't matter if you cover 10 years or 10 000 years. I'm eternally grateful that my first year history prof grabbed me by the green ears and hammered historiography into me. Prior to that, I thought almost anything could be reduced to three points and line about the historical significance.

So my main point here is that what we teach is of secondary importance to how we teach.


P.S. If you happen to run into any other differential calculus buffs, send them my way, there aren't many chain rule loving folks in the history section of the library these days. :)

Cmille said...

As much as I detest the circular self-defeatism of post modernism taken to an extreme, it's a bit disingenuous to not acknowledge what 'constructive' post-modernism has done for history as a discipline.

As I came into the discipline long after postmodern critiques of history appeared, it's hard for me to poinpoint what exactly was changed in history by postmodernism. But it seems like a lot of the things you mention in your description of history were influenced, to some degree, by the criticism. It's forced historians to re-examine the sources they use, how they use them and what they tell us about the past which, I think, restored some of the literary quality to the discipline after several decades of historians writing history by crushing their reader with a landslide of statistics, facts and charts.

If anything, I take heart in the profession's response to the postmodernism. Rather than curling up in a ball and hoping it would all go away, historians have, as you described, broadened the scope of writing history, bringing in the vocabularies, approaches, critiques of other disciplines that has become encapsualted in the various 'turns.'All the while keeping history focused on the most important thing: the past. It's definitely made it more difficult to differentiate between good and bad history, at least for the not-yet-fully-trained eyes, but bringing outsider's ideas into historical practice can't be bad for the discipline.

So, at least to me, it seems like you don't disagree with post modernism as much as you say you do. Or maybe I've misunderstood the terminology completely. I'll admit that I'm less concerned with specific labels for theories than what they can do for my understanding of what we write about.