U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (2/19/2010)

1. Historians As Activists—Against Bad History: The History Channel is at it again—meaning irritating professional historians. InsideHigherEd has relayed that a group of political historians are protesting an upcoming series on the Kennedy family. The show’s script writer, however, retorts that their complaints are premature—that the show isn’t finished yet. Saying that the show is “not a documentary [but] a dramatization,” Steve Kronish actually underscores other important issues in history—popularization versus nuance, public history versus traditional practice, the role of money in distorting exchanges about history, and political families who protect their legacies via manipulating archival access and lording over the work of historians (e.g. Kennedy family protectors fearing the work of Joel Surnow, a friend of Rush Limbaugh). Overall of these fears is the forgetfulness by everyone involved (historians ~and~ their subjects) that history is perspectival, subjective, and has always been a field of competing accounts. But it is also true that the free flow of truth—whether by storytelling or in conversation—is often overwhelmed by unequal concentrations of wealth in the hands of political partisans. In other words, propaganda fed by money can make the truth difficult to discern. In this particular case, it looks like there is enough blame to go around.

2. The State of Academe: Sadly, William Pannapacker gets closer and closer to some truths about academe and the life of the mind today with every column he writes. It’s hard for some of us (no matter your position or security within the academy) to distance ourselves from the job situation out there, but there can be no question that a future intellectual historian will have to deal with downside of credentialism in the intellectual life, particularly in humanities graduate studies.

3. Another Important Subfield With Identity Issues: Kevin Schultz and Paul Harvey authored a piece for InsideHigherEd that documents an “everywhere and nowhere” identity problem in the history of religion in America. The title of their article mimics precisely a line from Wilfred McClay’s assessment of USIH that appeared in Historically Speaking last fall. Here’s the Schultz-Harvey thesis:

Religion is everywhere around us, and religious historians have written about it in compelling and exciting ways, but within mainstream historiography it has been basically left behind. In a sense, religion is everywhere in modern American history, but nowhere in modern American historiography.

4. The Myth and Reality of Christianity’s Role in America’s Founding: Continuing somewhat the theme from point #3, the historical question of the Christian origins of America was recently addressed in the NY Times. Presented in the context of textbook adoption and revision discussions for Texas schools, here’s the article’s thesis:

[Christian conservative activists] hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders. The Christian “truth” about America’s founding has long been taught in Christian schools, but not beyond. Recently, however — perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists — some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society.