U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History in the Intertubes

Having engaged in some long-form commenting below, here’s a little short-form blogging on three topics of interest to this blog and its readers:

1) David Lowenthal, author of the terrific The Past is a Foreign Country, thinks we are become more presentist, which is not a good thing. I’m not sure if the “we” Lowenthal has in mind is Americans or people in the twenty-first century (it’s certainly not historians). I’m also honestly not sure whether or not I agree with Lowenthal’s diagnosis of rising presentism (though I’d agree that presentism is generally not a good thing). What d’ya think?

2) Based on a forthcoming U.S. Department of Education study, the Chronicle of Higher Education declares tenure dead. HNN asks readers to comment on what should be done now that it is. Predictably (given HNN comment threads) the first response consists of someone dancing on tenure’s grave. Is tenure dead or merely dying? Either way, what is to be done? And, finally, why does HNN have such godawful comment threads?

3) Following a lot of recent lobbying from various quarters, Ulysses S. Grant is slowly climbing the presidential ratings charts. Currently he’s ascended from bottom tier to middle of the pack. Where does he belong? And which, if any, of the changing views of Grant is most presentist? [h/t to Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money, who expresses justified disgust at the fact that sixty years ago historians thought that Grant was a worse president than Andrew Johnson.]

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Re: Presidential Rankings

    Admittedly, I haven’t seen the list of survey questions, but these kinds of polls have always struck me as deeply ahistorical, or maybe, ahistoriographical. They seem to strike against all that the profession stands for: complexity, nuance, reserving judgment, historical empathy. As a game to be played at the bar over a few beers with fellow historians, then, sure, it seems fun. But dressing it up as an “Expert Poll” as Siena College does, seems to take opinion and magically transform it into argument at best, and fact at worst.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. I generally agree that these rankings are non-history. One of the biggest, and most important, struggles in doing history is to get non-historians to see the complexity of the past. Ranked lists of presidents, like crude historical analogies, tend to make that job more difficult.

    However, I think the changing results of these polls are fascinating. They don’t tell us a lot about how good the various presidents “really” were, but they do tell us potentially interesting things about historiography and public memory.

  3. Lowenthal is certainly indignant, if not cranky, and there may be something to his notion that people are becoming more presentist in the sense that they are growing more impatient with distinctions between past and present (though anecdotal evidence is never to be relied upon unquestioned).

    That said, I am generally dubious of the accusation of presentism. It has always struck me as melding a non sequitur with a truism. A non sequitur because it implies there might be some alternative perspective on the past; a truism because our perspective on the past must be based in the prsent. It would require a restructuring of the physical and metaphysical foundations of the universe for it to be otherwise.

    I am firmly of the Kantian/Collingwoodian view that the historical enterprise is inherently presentist because we can only view the past from the perspective we have, which is that of the present. Therefore, we can only know the past as we know it in the here and now, that is, the present. All history – in the sense that it is a recreation, an interpretation, a reconstruction, what have you – occurs in the present.

    So to the charge of being presentist there’s really only one answer: “What else would I be?” It is the ultimate “I here now” situation. But this issue is philosophically thorny as it is without dragging the philosophy of language into it.

  4. With Varad, I doubt that “presentism” has become any more egregious in the past 10 years or more than it ever was before. And I also agree with Varad on the historical enterprise always containing a strong presentist component. This is why history has to be rewritten every generation: to speak to new problems in a language that one’s contemporaries understand. The history itself never really changes. Rather, our inquiries and evidence change–requiring new publications re-framing old matters.

    A mark of presentism today would be a concrete, empirical decline in the consumption of historical thinking through a statistical analysis of various media (e.g. books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, history websites, history blogs). If the overall number showed a decline in the consumption of historical media content, then we might—just maybe—be able to make some kind of broad statement about “presentism.” Does this kind of far-ranging study exist as of 2010? Has it ever been done? Can it ever be done? I don’t think so. – TL

  5. Tim said: “The history itself never really changes.” I would rephrase that just a tad. History does change; it is rewritten every generation, for the reasons you list. Koselleck and Collingwood make the same argument. It’s the past that doesn’t change, remaining ever immutable beyond our reach. What we see in it, want from it, how we approach it, etc. – that is what changes and, hence, why history changes too.

    Perhaps that’s only a quibble, but to me the distinction gets to the heart of what historians do.

  6. “why does HNN have such godawful comment threads?”

    For reasons passing understanding, most trained historians don’t comment on HNN articles, either to condemn, praise, quibble or complicate. This leaves the comment fields to a cadre of highly motivated amateurs, most of whom come to make the same points over and over again, most of which are political rather than historical.

    You could change that.

Comments are closed.