U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (5/15/09)

1. Writing Tips from Scott Eric Kaufman—How many times do professed intellectual historians direct your attention to graphics that involve a hamburger? For the record, I generally agree with Ahistoricality when he/she comments that, with regard to history, the evidence needs to outweigh the analysis. Furthermore, as a adopted Chicagoan, my evidential burger condiments generally exclude ketchup (and I do like dijon).

2. Issues in Borderline Slavery Denial at Civil War Memory—I concede that my comments on this post are akin to killing a fly with a hammer: I propose a theoretical solution that overreaches the current problem. But I do genuinely wonder if memories of the American Civil War are, at times, being pushed by extreme revisionists into a denial of slavery. Is there a need for some kind of mild law against denying our own holocaust?

3. Is David Brooks Avoiding Politics by Rethinking the Intellectual Life? (here and here)—Mr. Brooks is known, among some, for his intelligent and reasonably moderate conservatism. His commentary on PBS last fall, during the presidential campaign party conventions, compelled a grudging admiration for his sense of perspective. But I wonder, in light of the current political scene, if he is sort of retreating into the intellectual life? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind. I’m finding the intellectual Brooks more interesting than the political one. And perhaps I don’t know his biography well enough; he may have been this way all along?

But on the links provided, the first, on the notion of genius, contains important elements of consideration for all aspiring and working intellectual historians. In particular I appreciated Brooks’ citation of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. Both works correspond with an ongoing theory I’ve held about how one becomes an intellectual with regard to whatever topic is at hand (assuming that multiple intelligences theories hold): superior ability doesn’t always manifest itself clearly for evaluators of youth talent, but drive and discipline that correspond with an strong internal vision can sometimes be detected, and would be equally valuable to evaluators. With that, taking a more working, or developmental, view of “genius” would have no small consequences for how history departments, for instance, ought to select applicants. And since the brightest of our faculties in history are encouraged, for the most part, to develop their own genius to its fullest (i.e. research and publish) rather than train those under them, it seems likely that next generation of history “geniuses” is likely to come from hands-on, teaching-type doctoral departments. In other words, those that don’t overly emphasize research.

The second Brooks piece looks at the Harvard College “Grant Study.” Here he is underscoring Joshua Wolf Shank’s June 2009 Atlantic article. That piece is about the pursuit and causes of happiness, but it’s also an object lesson in the caprices of intelligence. It highlights something emphasized by Barzun in House of Intellect: namely, that pursuing the intellectual life has only a moderate correlation with intelligence (circling back to the Coyle/Colvin thesis above, reflecting a consistent thread in Brooks’ reading list). And of course all historians should keep these two conclusions from Brooks in mind:

a. “It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear.”
b. “There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute.”

– TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. i just looked over the comments in which you originally suggested applying something like european anti-holocaust denial laws to the US. it’s a fascinating idea. I’ve got to say though that, first, the european laws (in particular the german ones) came into being in exceptional circumstances very close to the events they concern. second, that at the moment it’s arguable that these laws are doing more harm than good. sometimes for specific reasons that wouldn’t necessarily exist in for the civil war (that is, the debate over Israel). can’t say, in the end, that i think it’s a good idea for the US, but explaining why not without falling into knee-jerk libertarianism is not so easy (as the responses to your original post indicate).

  2. Eric,

    Thanks for a sane reply on the topic. I began to fear for reasonable discourse at CWM, a site that I enjoy and find profitable (even granting I was somewhat abrupt in my first comment).

    If the European anti-Holocaust denial laws truly did more harm than good, then you’d think they would be repealed by now. However, if Wikipedia is to be trusted (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_against_Holocaust_denial), many of the laws have come about since 1990 or so. And the EU affirmed that law-making ability in 2001. So they’re still in operation.

    Like you, I’m not sure it’s a good idea ~right now~, or necessary in the U.S. presently. But there’s no reason, as a historian, to necessarily FEAR that type of law if it were come up.

    – TL

  3. And it’s interesting to be flamed for commenting about transgression and punishment with regard to extreme, potentially dangerous historical denials. Welcome to the hyper-active, pseudo-intellectual world of the “Lost Cause” and “Moonlight and Magnolias.” – TL

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