Yesterday, at the fourth annual Graduate Student Symposium at the University of Texas at Dallas, Ben Alpers give an incredible keynote address on “The Future of the Humanities.” I won’t summarize his talk here, but I will summarize the audience response: Ben rocked the house.
After Ben spoke, I presented my own paper as part of a panel addressing the theme, “Why the Humanities Matter.” My colleagues Michele Rosen and Sara Keeth did an extraordinary job of explaining the cultural value of translation studies and literary studies. Then it fell to me — because I had gladly if somewhat naively volunteered to do it — to make the case for “Why History Matters.”
The actual title of my talk was more elaborate, but it was no more ambitious than the daunting task I had before me: to explain why the study of history matters to somebody besides me, and to do so while standing next to a particularly formidable American intellectual and cultural historian, Daniel Wickberg, who moderated our panel.
I have my reasons for valuing history as I do — and I spoke about some of those reasons yesterday. But the argument that the study of history can enrich one’s life — and it certainly can, and it certainly has — is not sufficient to explain what history has to offer to those outside the ivied walls of the ivory tower.
What is the cultural value of being a historian? Why should the academy continue to train historians? Beyond the self-perpetuation of the profession, what does that get us?
Training scholars to think historically gets us people who can wade into the contentious conversations in the public sphere while retaining — and modeling — some sense of irony and perhaps the faintest bit of humility about the limits of one’s own understanding. We get, in other words, people who would (ideally) offer a different model of discourse besides the rhetoric of righteous indignation and moral or political absolutism that is constantly swirling around us.
That was the basic argument of my paper. Keep in mind that I was explaining “thinking historically” to an audience of people who were coming from other disciplines in the humanities. I used my own struggle to contextualize the radical abolitionism of William Lloyd Garrison as a way of framing my discussion. So here’s a slightly revised version of part of my argument, which includes some references to discussions taking place on this blog:
This effort to suspend judgment in favor of understanding is part of what it means to “think historically.” It’s hard to do. But it is a disciplinary and self-disciplinary hallmark of historians. This professional self-discipline, Thomas Haskell explains, “requires detachment”: the ability to “suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers,…to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally.” And, I would argue, the most unnatural perspective of all is to recognize that our own mental conception of the world — whether it’s the idea that slavery is wrong, or the idea that historians ought to approach their subjects with some measure of detachment — is not a timeless truth; our moral and mental conceptions are ideas, and they too have a history of their own.
Keeping the history of our own mental framework in mind even as we write history practically forces us to embrace some sense of disciplinary humility. We do our best work when we keep front and center “a conception of the limits of historical knowledge.” Instead of a totalizing grand narrative, or grandiose explanatory claims, historians attentive to the limitations of our own discipline would (ideally) write, Allan Megill suggests, with a “greater humility and reflexiveness with regard to the interpretation of the past” — a “self-ironic style.” This is the practice of history as a sort of tonic of humility — an ironic self-awareness that we must not be self-righteous in our own certainties.
Irony. Humility. Detachment. This is what history has to offer.
This is what history has to offer? Oh, how the mighty have fallen! But it is, I would argue, a fortunate fall — though not all historians have made the leap. Indeed, one of my colleagues on the U.S. Intellectual History blog is concerned that I seem to have lost a sense of the heuristic purpose of doing history: to draw from the particular circumstances of the past some generally applicable principles for the present. “Isn’t that part of how we learn from history,” my colleague asked me in a recent blog comment, “learn to avoid the mistakes of the past? Or,” he continued, “are you a postmodernist such that you see these applications as overwrought with hazards? How do you talk truth with those who come to history seeking SOME limited universal truths? How do you sell historical thinking if you disallow present applications?” It’s a fair question. After all, I had been saying there — and I am saying here — that “when history veers into a discussion of what is true in a transhistorical or ‘timeless’ sense, it ceases to be history.”
Indeed, “timeless” and “historical” don’t really go together.
Instead, what history can offer is a careful, attentive, thick if not thorough interpretation of a particular past context. The point of such interpretation is not to distill some lesson that will help us “avoid the mistakes of the past”; because time is on the move, the mistakes of the past are unrepeatable. That’s one of the implications of contingency: each present moment is the product of innumerable choices made and chances taken by others. So history can’t repeat itself; we are wonderfully free to make new mistakes now. How’s that for a liberated future?
That’s a very liberated future. In his famous — and much assigned — essay, “The Burden of History,” Hayden White describes how foregrounding contingency frees up the future. History has the “special task” of bringing people to “an awareness that their present condition was always in part a product of specifically human choices, which could therefore be changed or altered by further human action.” As George Cotkin affirms, “we are born into structures of power and culture that constrain us. But, at the same time,” he continues, “we retain a degree of agency that may assimilate or change those structures to varying degrees.” Intellectual history in particular foregrounds the way that such structuring ideas shape not only the world that people are born into but also the very conceptual limits of how they can imagine reacting against that world. Grasping this dynamic — getting some sense of the sheer weight of what people have to wade through to ever think differently about anything — makes it easier to view individual people, past and present, with less judgment and more understanding.
So our job as historians is to speak to our time, to speak to our culture, by speaking faithfully about the past.
The historian’s task is simple: to reconstruct a moment, or a series of moments, from the past, and to hold that past up to view not so that we might commend or condemn it, but so that we might understand it. That exercise — the demonstration of how to suspend judgment in favor of understanding — repeated again and again, defines both the process and the product of history faithfully practiced. Leading others through that exercise with us is the pedagogical, the scholarly, and — in a certain sense — the pastoral work of secular historians. We must leave to our historical subjects the harsh and uncompromising and proudly immoderate rhetoric of moral absolutism. Let Garrison thunder like a prophet, and let us hear him in the context of his time. Ironically, in the context of our time, to demonstrate ironic detachment and some sense of humility about our own habitual [historical?] certainties is, in its own way, profoundly prophetic.
Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory, Vol. 29 No. 2 (May, 1990), 132.
Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 56.
Tim Lacy, March 15, 2012 (10:35 a.m.), comment on Tim Lacy, “Tim’s Light Reading (3-15-2012): Gretel Adorno, Richard Theodore Greener, Ontics, Defending First Principles, and Tony Judt via Jennifer Homans,” U.S. Intellectual History, March 15, 2012, http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/03/tims-light-reading-3-15-2012-gretel.html.
L.D. Burnett, March 15, 2012 (9:15 a.m.), comment on Lacy, “Light Reading (3-15-2012).”
Hayden White, “The Burden of History,” History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1966), 133.
George Cotkin, “History’s Moral Turn,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 69, No. 2 (April 2008), 305.