In Pulitzer Prize-winning political historian Gordon Wood’s recent book, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, Wood discusses some issues central to U.S. intellectual history. Namely, Wood is critical of the turn the historical discipline has taken away from more traditional political history. Substitute political history for intellectual history if you wish, and the arguments are the same.
For one, Wood laments the hyper-relativistic turn the discipline has taken. He harshly criticizes those like cultural historians Hayden White, who by his estimation have internalized the poststructuralist theories of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to mean that historical writing is no truer than literature. For Wood, this is historical relativism reductio ad absurdum.
I assume most historians agree with Wood that our work is non-fiction, even if we might debate the degree to which we are able to uncover historical truth. If so, I sense that White acts as a straw man for him to argue something else. Just as anti-relativism often serves conservatives as a way to critique liberalism (something about which I’ve written here, in an essay I titled, How Conservatives Have Come to Despise the Academy), it seems Wood’s critique of relativism is cover for his lament over the social and cultural turns the discipline has taken. He is careful to emphasize that the expansion of peoples studied by historians (to include minorities and women, for example) has benefited our understanding of the past. However, Wood is dismayed that studying great political leaders is no longer fashionable. He is dismayed that, for example, of the ten “Best American History Essays” chosen by the OAH in 2006, seven dealt with race or gender.
I find Wood’s lament somewhat amusing, because one of my colleagues and friends happens to be his daughter, Amy Wood, ironically, a cultural historian who focuses on race. Amy has a book coming out on UNC Press titled Lynching and Spectacle. Gordon Wood discussed this irony during a recent C-Span interview. Although he’s proud of his daughter’s accomplishments, especially since his first book was also published with UNC Press, he insinuates that Amy—and most graduate students—must study race or gender because they’re advised it’s their only entry to the profession. In sum, he regrets that political history no longer serves to integrate the broader discipline, even as the political history written by non-academics like David McCullough grows ever more popular.
What should we make of Wood’s lament? I think his critique is mostly born of a defensive posture, and as such, we should take it with a grain of salt. Wood, of course, realizes social and cultural history enhance our understanding of American political life. In fact, his work on the founders employs some social and cultural history, even if he doesn’t write about race and gender. And to relate this to one of my fields: fusing political and social history has greatly improved our understanding of American conservatism. Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, exemplifies this.
McGirr roots her study in a straightforward theory of human agency—a theory long familiar to social historians of slavery and the working class. She argues that the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, which allowed for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and which eventually paved the way for the Reagan Revolution, was due more to ordinary people, often women, than the Machiavellian conspiring of a corporate elite. Although I think McGirr overemphasizes the novelty and centrality of “agency” as a historical force, and although I think she underestimates the importance of race to the conservative movement, her look at the grassroots right represents a necessary expansion of historical inquiry into political conservatism. That she devotes space to housewives who mix their coffee klatches with anti-ACLU organizing—as much space as to, say, Ronald Reagan’s rise in California politics—does not make her book less significant as political history. So, Professor Wood doth protest too much.
That said, on the flip side, I maintain that some of the emphases of the older political history—the type Wood admires—should, in fact, be reemphasized, especially the history of political ideas and the history of education. These two more traditional focuses are at the heart of my research interests. With regard to the latter, as education became integral to the American experience, people with conflicting visions of the “good society” increasingly expressed their political aspirations in educational terms. Richard Hofstadter recognized this, which is why he included two chapters on John Dewey and progressive education in his Pulitzer-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. According to his biographer David Brown, Hofstadter hoped to establish “a new historiography that presented the educational past as indispensable to the progress of American freedoms.” Another venerable American historian, Christopher Lasch, also included educational history in all of his major works, including his bestselling The Culture of Narcissism, although, unlike Hofstadter, he typically wrote about education as a way to explain the iron cage of modernity. This divergence aside, for both Hofstadter and Lasch, it was impossible to understand the modern US without investigating the schools (which serves as theoretical grounding for my book, Education and the Cold War).
In conclusion, although I loathe the Vital Center politics of the early Cold War and beyond, I suppose I am a vital centrist on the great historiographic debates that continue to rock our discipline. I like aspects of both the old and the new.