U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gordon Wood: Old Versus New History

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.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew:

    Your post brought up for me a sequence of unrelated ideas. First, your point that “Wood’s critique of relativism” is likely a “cover for his lament over the social and cultural turns the discipline has taken” seems to suggest a conflation of issues. Though I, for one, would be willing to grant that the rise of a kind of relativistic history, an increased interest in accounts of the subaltern, and the “race/class/gender” focus of recent decades might all issue from the same (mostly political) motivations, they are not the same thing. One could, for example, write a relativistic history of some president or and general, or a more factual manuscript about a previously unnoticed African-American lesbian community: which of these would Wood applaud or criticize, and why?

    Additionally, the same point suggests an insufficient understanding of relativism itself. As you wrote, the idea that relativism implies that history is like fiction is a straw man. Many who invoke relativism—both supporters (“Well that’s your opinion!”) and detractors—deal in a vulgar caricature of an actually defensible position. Relativism itself need only imply that the criteria we use to differentiate between literature and history (i.e. the standards that determine truth) are socially constructed rather than independent of human values. Since clearly there are such standards, the philosophical question of what, if anything, justifies them is not one that historians even need to address in order to do their work well.

    On another issue, Wood’s position that “most graduate students must study race or gender because they’re advised it’s their only entry to the profession” is exactly the idea that Lauren mentioned in the comment she posted the other day. It hadn’t occurred to me that this could be taken as a slight against those who work in those fields, but I now I see how such a characterization could feel personally belittling. But in my experience, Wood’s portrait is actually a weaker version of what actually happens: students are often told not only that focusing on minorities and women will grease the wheels of their professional ambition, but also that work failing to deal with these topics is inadequate and irresponsible.

    Finally, the idea “that political history no longer serves to integrate the broader discipline” is interesting to me on several levels. First, it’s at least arguable that what’s really changed is less the influence of political history, and more the notion of integration itself. I often find that historians who are not studying the same narrow subdiscipline have very little in common professionally. Does anything unify U.S. history anymore? A more important point, however, is that almost everyone I know who is doing historical work (many of whom are actually in American studies) thinks of his/her work as political in its import. The goals that characteristically animate work on race, gender and sexuality–foregrounding assumed hierarchies, recovering lost voices and the like–can have tremendous political utility, and I think that many, if not most, historians view their work through a political prism. What has changed is not the level of interest in politics, but the fact that few younger historians see the sites of traditional political history–elections, government policies and personalities and, unfortunately, ideas–as where the action is. (Somewhat ironically, however, many of these these same people find electoral politics to be very important in their personal lives.) Whatever one may think of the value of this shift, it is difficult to deny that it has occurred. On my interpretation and in my experience, the historical profession is, if anything, hyper-politicized rather than uninterested in politics.


  2. Mike: Your comments are excellent. Allow me to clarify. My reference to “relativism” was underdeveloped, or perhaps cryptic. I’ve been thinking about relativism lately in my scholarship, namely, how anti-relativism shifted from something elitist conservatives used to critique the effects of democracy, to something populist conservatives used to critique a perceived elitism among liberals of all sorts, including academics.

    Gordon Wood’s critique of relativism in the context of the historical discipline is not the same thing, and I don’t think he even uses the term–so I should have been more careful. He is specifically critical of the radical anti-foundationalism of Hayden White, who once notoriously argued that history was no truer than fiction in the way that historians construct it. This gave credence to those who claimed postmodernism killed history. I argue that Wood’s use of White is a straw man because hardly any historians actually believe their work to be fiction. Thus, I argue that his critique of hyper-relativism or post-structuralism or anti-foundationalism (whatever one calls it) is not his real concern. His real concern is that the discipline is somewhat closed off to more traditional styles of historical narrative, about presidents for instance, the type he writes. We can debate the merits of this argument separately if you like. I think he’s correct to a certain degree, but overstates his case.

    As for your description of how scholars seem more politicized than ever in their work, even if they don’t deal with politics writ large, I would agree with you, as does Wood. One of his central critiques of the discipline is the way so many historians, especially cultural historians, find either resistance or repression in seemingly every ordinary cultural interaction. This seems like a valid critique insofar as, for example, no matter how it’s explained to me, I can’t find anything subversive or transgressive in most of what passes for our culture, and scholarly attempts to prove it as such seem little more than mental gymnastics. Perhaps some of the culture is repressive–this seems much more plausible, if still overstated. The real repression remains the dull compulsion of the economic.

  3. A small addition to the point I made on another post–I do in fact see a lot of grad students throw in some race because they feel they must, but they’re not trained to think about it rigorously. It ends up additive and functionalist, rather like someone who discovers they must throw in something about the French into their dissertation without actually learning French. (I know I’ve seen this done in published works as well, but one’s not popping into my mind at the moment).

    One of the benefits of the race/class/gender paradigms is how we have come to see the substantive effects of these broad categories on our political, cultural, and intellectual past. Throwing them in (or studying them) as sexy and fashionable without understanding actually undermines that claim to substance. So I say, be open to r/c/g paradigms when analyzing your primary sources, but only go there if your texts do.

    It is incredibly useful to realize how much race motivated the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson. Ignoring that would be ludicrous. But saying that their opinions on race was their only reality or significance is equally ludicrous.

Comments are closed.