U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I am a presentist–and so is Gordon Wood

I have a confession to make: I am “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society.” Gordon Wood has me figured out quite well. I am not so sure that, as he said, the situation “has gotten worse,” for New Left historians have made it ‘worse’ for quite a while now. They have begun the process of correcting for the views of the likes of Wood, Perry, Namier, and Syme—sorry that is Sir Namier and Sir Syme—several decades ago. Wood, of course, unlike myself, and much like Sir Isaiah Berlin before him, is not at all interested in the present. That is why they both seem so disconcerted when sniveling academics—so notorious for their ethical hangups—seem to complicate celebratory narratives that have hitherto dominated, and still dominate, American imagination in the present.

Indeed, Wood is not so much upset with “fragmentary” and “anachronistic” histories written today, but with the way such scholarship frustrates the very ‘satisfying’ story he has told us over and over and over again. After all, that self-congratulatory story has allowed a white man like himself—who tells ‘good’ stories of progress and of the ‘white man’s burden’—to attain such prominence as our de-facto national historian. In fact, perhaps the reason that Bailyn has not achieved the public success Wood wishes for him is that he too has been telling us different kinds of stories, of late.

Berlin, as he was quoted by Wood, was certainly correct as well. If there is one place where one can craft satisfying stories about the progress of civilization, which champion contemporary power structures with even more disregard for the grand narrative of colonialism than Harvard, it might be Oxbridge. From there, after all, both Berlin and Namier could pretend that the heinous centuries-long British history of colonialism in every continent—Antarctica excepted—is marginal to the story of the British nation or European civilization. What Wood would have us overlook is that “fragmentary” and “anachronistic” histories increasingly piece together a much more overwhelming history arch. They help us view the grand narrative of colonialism for what it was and is—not only perhaps the most devastating and horrific affair known to us, but also the story with the most explanatory potential for explicating the present.

It is about time, I think, for historians to stop deluding themselves that presentism is a problem or that anyone can avoid it, for that matter. We all have agendas. The question is how forthcoming are we about them–do we let such agendas permeate our writing in ways we have not openly accounted for, both vis-a-vis ourselves and our readership. For our peers to evaluate our scholarship we provide meticulous footnotes—why not provide them with a full disclosure as to our agendas as well? Indeed, settling one’s agenda with oneself and others would probably help us, to not only better understand our motives, but to write more careful scholarship as well—certainly more transparent.

If Wood had done that—had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion. Instead, Wood seeks to throw sand in our eyes, and because our contemporary academic discourse does not allow us to assert that the present is and was the bottomline of any history that was ever written, we cannot have the kind of argument we should be having—a very political one.

What should be the goal of historical scholarship (and most of us strive for this even if we do not like to concede as much) is what should ultimately stand out as the goal of every person in every society—its betterment. Whether we believe that good scholarship influences critical thinking and that such skills constitute the foundation of a healthy democratic society; whether we think that through our scholarship we can explain why the prison population since 1970 has grown by 700%; or if we think that the US is the most awesome place in the world and everyone else should be like us, we have an agenda.

In recent years, for instance, historians have grown accustomed to the idea that we are limited to the narrative form, and we seem to have gotten over it. Why can’t we accept that likewise historians will always have an agenda?

If we do not have an agenda, then why do the stakes seem so high whenever we broach these topics? If history was only about knowledge for the sake of knowledge—a satisfying intellectual exercise at best—we would not get so riled-up to begin with. The truth, I suspect, is that we would all like to believe that history is in some way important. And how else would it prove important if it has no consequences for us—who are “stranded in the present” [1]—whatsoever? We cannot help having some kind of agenda, and we should not help it. Why else would we want to study history anyway?

[1] To use the title of Peter Fritzsche’s great book

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well, shit.

    Now I feel duty bound to put in a good word for one very tiny part of Gordon Wood’s argument — just part of a sentence or two, really. And that’s not a job I want right now, because Gordon Wood and some of his defenders have engaged in an egregious exercise of anti-academic propagandism that is aimed at further eroding public support for higher education and cynically discrediting research in the humanities as undertaken since, oh, say, 1965. For Wood to take to the pages of the National Review Weekly Standard, of all places, to fan the flames of anti-intellectual pseudo-populist outrage against “academics” and “historians” — I guess he has ascended to a higher plane of consciousness and counts as neither now? — is just unconscionable. And it is, as you point out, as unabashedly presentist as the day is long.

    And yet there’s one part of one of Wood’s sentences that I find myself agreeing with. It’s an idea I have gone to bat for at this blog before, and it would be craven of me to lie low and pretend that it isn’t still important to me, because it is.

    I think that Wood is right to caution against historical inquiry as an exercise in judging the past by the standards of the present, and I think it is important for historians to understand the past, as best we can, on its own terms. And I think this is important precisely because history is an act of moral inquiry, and if it’s going to be a useful act of moral inquiry, it has to do something more difficult than pronouncing anathemas on dead people. I mean, that’s easy — getting on a moral high horse to condemn historical agents of the past for not comporting with the ethical norms of the present is going after some pretty low-hanging fruit. And, to shift to another corner of the food pyramid, surely we all have bigger fish to fry.

    Your mileage may vary on this, but for me, the most valuable effect of historical inquiry is not to collapse the distance between past and present, but to throw it in sharp relief — to render what seems familiar into something that is actually rather strange. I think that kind of work is important because it affirms and underscores the realm of contingency and choice: it affirms that things have not always been as they are, people have not always believed as they do, the moral sensibility of society — including our own — is not written in stone but constantly constructed out of countless human choices. Porting our own judgments into the past can be reassuring, especially if we would like things to stay just exactly as they are, or as we picture them, with ourselves standing on the side of the angels and sure that our vision is the right one. Lots of people can do that kind of work. People do that all the time. But what is distinctive about historical inquiry, I think, is that it can do the harder work of recovering or reconstructing or somehow reviving for examination an alternate perspective, an alternate vision of the way the world worked or ought to work.

    It’s not like we can ever finally step outside the frame of our moment to see it from the outside, and the past we construct via historical work is the past as understood in this present moment. Ironically, though, I think it is in the ultimately impossible struggle of the historian to step outside his/her frame and somehow “try on,” as one tries on a pair of lenses, the conceptual framework of an earlier time — I think this moral and intellectual labor of the historian, the track-marks of our struggle preserved on the page like trilobite trails in ancient mud, is the most valuable contribution historians can make to expand the moral horizons of the present. It’s that wrestling against easy judgment, that insistence on understanding when we would far rather simply sharply condemn or uncritically praise — that’s the work we do that matters most.

    Now, that’s not the argument that Gordon Wood made. That’s the argument I think he should have made. But shame on him for choosing instead to fan the flames of popular contempt for higher education, further undermining the already precarious position of a generation scholars who will never attain the freedom he has enjoyed to pursue disinterested scholarship. Shame on him for lending his voice to those whose aim is to tear down and defund and destroy what is left of free intellectual inquiry in American higher education.

    See, that’s my presentism coming through.

  2. I’ve said it before on my own now dormant blog, I’ve argued with my friend Andrew Hartman over it. I guess I’ll say it again quickly: I can’t possibly disagree more with this post. As a teacher, my agenda is to teach history. It’s not to make students pro-choice, or anti-choice, or capitalist, or Marxist, or anything else. When I teach about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as I have, I don’t want any student in the class to think of me as friend or foe because of my political views. The best student comment I ever received was that one could not tell my political views on any given issue. In my life outside the classroom, I’m on the left. But that is COMPLETELY irrelevant to my teaching. I know this makes me a conservative dinosaur academically, but I believe in “that noble dream.” And there you have it. I know many disagree, but I firmly believe this is the only responsible way to teach history. “Betterment” of society is nice, but everyone has a different version of betterment. So I tell my students to learn history in my class, and save the world on their own time. And the reason I study history has nothing to do with wanting to improve the world. It has to do with wanting to be a time traveling detective, and to quench my thirst for knowledge. It’s actually quite selfish.

  3. I doubt that Eran, or many of us, will dispute or argue against your call, LD, to use history to get out of the tyranny of the present. That’s an important cognitive exercise, one that fosters empathy, sympathy, and true understanding of the situations of others. It’s a crucial critical thinking exercise. But, as you said, that wasn’t Wood’s goal or argument. Indeed, I detected a weird presentist-historicist tension in Wood (or at least in his praise for his mentor). So I’m inclined to go with Eran’s overall rebuke. Let’s get over the pretension that historians have no moral arguments with roots in the present. – TL

  4. I’ll add that what I said above about my teaching applies also to my scholarship. In my academic writing I do my best to not reveal any political views about anything, as they are irrelevant to my analysis of the past (or should be).

  5. @David Weinfeld
    In my experience, the best professors are those who put different views before their students and, to the extent humanly possible, let their students make up their own minds about what to think. Everyone has political views and aims that do influence them in various ways in their various roles, but I think teachers, as a rule, should not be in the business of telling students what they should believe or how they should act politically. So to that extent at least I agree w you. I’ve done very little teaching, but as a grad student I was teaching an intro int’l politics course the semester when the Iraq invasion occurred (2003). I let the students argue/discuss in the run-up to the invasion and tried to offer some factual perspective, but when a student asked me point-blank what my own view was, I declined to say. I did not think that was my role.

    Note: this is not really intended as a comment on the post here nor on Wood’s piece, which I haven’t read yet.

    • p.s. I do not think, just to clarify, that politics and scholarship can or should be completely separated, or that scholarship should necessarily be separated from normative views and aspirations. The best scholarship is sometimes fueled by such aspirations, ISTM. Not always, no doubt, but quite often.

  6. I have a question re: LD’s comment, which I think has been bouncing around in my head for a while.

    I pretty much agree with everything you are saying, yet this phrase stuck out at me; that the purpose of good history is “to render what seems familiar into something that is actually rather strange.”

    I’ve been seeing that expression or sentiment around, lately, in some form or another, and I don’t know if my view is slightly different or if it is just a matter of semantics, and am wondering if anyone would like to chime in. The thing is, I agree that good history *can* do this, but I’m not sure if I would describe all good history this way. Thinking back on my own naive, virginal exposure to encountering what certainly felt like and is still regarded as “good history,” I do agree that it took something I always took for granted and then historicized it; it told me where it came from. And that blew my mind. So in a sense, I can see how it “rendered it strange,” but in another, I don’t — because on another level, what I loved about it was it rendered it also *intelligible,* it rendered what I thought was a subjective experience that was all about me into something with roots in places and people I had never met. In this sense, I felt *less* alienated, then, from myself or my past, and rather much the more connected to it, much more like I was “from” somewhere. So how much of the work of empathy makes the past strange in that we find surprising answers to questions that perhaps, we didn’t even know we needed to ask, and how much of it makes so much in the present, and in ourselves, make more sense, even if so far removed from the places they had their origin in, when they appeared in probably a radical different form and yet!, and yet….that Faulkner quote which I guess everyone, myself included, willfully misunderstands comes back to me. The past is the past, and yet damn, sometimes it feels so close.

    I mean, let’s put it this way: I am a gazillion miles away from being a 16th century Protestant, and yet, there’s a reason I have this weird, intense portrait of a zoom up of Jesus on the cross on my office wall. It reminds me of a part of myself that tells me where I came from; that yeah, I’m sure as hell not Martin Luther (oh thank god!) BUT, but, there are habits I have that I have good reason to doubt could be there quite like they specifically are without the contingency of him doing what he did, and in the way he did it, at the time and place he did it in. And a million contingencies in between, sure, but there is still a line that can be drawn, or at least some dots that can be loosely connected.

    And finally, to connect this back to Eran’s point, what I find is that once one knows what they can somewhat arbitrarily identify as “their” history — in this case we’re talking about the history of how we ended up with this wacky thing called the United States, and what went into that particular historical stew — then I feel like one is also liberated to take a position on it; to say, as inheritor of all of this mess, good and bad, I’m going to take some responsibility for this society I am part of in the present by engaging with the past in the most honest, yet value-driven way I can. It’s only because I once identified with, for example, Jefferson — in all those weird ways you empathize with a friend you love talking with, even if they are very different from yourself and challenge your views — that after thinking it over long enough, and looking at it from contemporaneous perspectives other than his, and then zooming out; well, only with the original empathy in hand can I either, in the end, decide to associate or dissociate in the manner in which, as a citizen in the present who emphatically gives a fuck, I am somewhat obligated to do, I feel. So I broke up with these people. I had to. But not necessarily because they got too strange too me. Maybe it was actually because good history seemed to make some of the ugly sides of their times & selves seem ever depressingly, ugh, present.

    • “. . . that the purpose of good history is “to render what seems familiar into something that is actually rather strange.”

      Somehow it seems to me that you are talking more about poetry/literature here than history. After all, Wordsworth tells us it is the poet’s duty:

      “. . .to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.”

      For those who have the ability to “take [poetry] to heart, and truly hear it,” this power of imagination is what allows them to create the world anew by changing their consciousness.

      As Professor William Dowling notes in his essay on the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”:
      “Such people are those who themselves possess what might be called a power of creative consciousness – a power ?to see the world anew amidst the clutter of habit and? the mindlessness of purely ordinary existence – and it is poetry and song that nourishes this consciousness in these people.”

      For New Critic Cleanth Brooks, history is not without its own need for imagination, and in his study of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, he asserts that:

      “Most important of all, however, Absalom, Absalom! is a persuasive commentary upon the thesis that much of “history” is really a kind of imaginative construction. The past always remains at some level a mystery, but if we are to hope to understand it in anywise, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of the historical figures.”

      Anyway I guess this pushes history into more of a literary endeavor.

      Just some random thoughts.

  7. In relation to David’s points, here in the comments, about politics/presentism in the classroom, it’s interesting to read Nicole Hemmer’s reflection on the potential use of Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” *America* in Florida’s classrooms. I was thinking in particular of Hemmer’s final passages:

    As these books and D’Souza’s film show, there’s big money to be made in an ideological approach to history.

    That doesn’t mean the approach should be imported to the classroom – at least not under the guise of history. By all means, use “America” to introduce students to the political uses of American history or to the concept of logical fallacy. It’s well suited to both purposes. It is not, however, a suitable text for teaching history. Not because academic history is apolitical, but because “America” isn’t academic history.

    Education, of course, is not apolitical. As a site of state-mandated learning, classrooms have long been at the heart of America’s political culture wars. In the past few decades, the battle for the classroom has been shaped by a push for ideological balance: intelligent design alongside evolution, climate change denial next to climate science. In those cases, ideological concerns have overridden principles of peer review, professional standards and disciplinary consensus. Hays and company would like to do the same to history education, a move that would advance a political agenda at the cost of quality learning.

    So I guess the key question is this: Where does “presentism” end and politics begin? Or can anyone ever really separate her politics from her historical inquiry? – TL

  8. I really enjoyed this piece. It really gets at one of the core problems with Wood’s article: that history can be written outside politics. As anyone who has read Wood’s monographs (as I did for exams) quickly realizes, he has an agenda promoting, for example, an American revolution that was truly revolutionary both politically and socially, despite counterarguments that it did not substantively change the social system developed in the colonies, particularly for women and non-white Americans.

    One side of Woodgate that has received surprisingly little attention is the notion that the decline of the public intellectual is the fault of the intellectual and not the public. It seems to me that the death of the monoculture has had as much to do with the decline of the public intellectual as anything about scholarly training or new research methods. The histories that tend to attract widespread public attention are written by divisive media personalities (Bill O’Reilly for example) or memoirs/biographies of famous men (David Axelrod’s new book is listed under history, “American Sniper” is the top ranked history book on Amazon because of the film). I don’t think the lack of public interest in academic history is indicative of some sort of larger social decay. Instead, I see it as a movement away from a monoculture that would be interested in a history monograph. There is so much entertainment out there that – with a few exceptions – popularity is elusive even for those industries (film, music, etc.) that devote massive resources to it. Histories written by academic professionals are seldom popular and that’s OK. We’ll be plugging away at our craft, doing the best work we can in the classroom and the archive, and if the American public should ever need to call on us, we’ll be ready and willing to offer our ideas and opinions.

  9. This is a most exciting debate/discussion. I actually don’t mind the strong rhetoric of this post; while I don’t agree with its politics and think the conflation of Gordon Wood and Isaiah Berlin most mistaken (I cannot think of two thinkers more dissimilar than Wood and Berlin!) I can see that the post was motivated by a moral urgency of the present and that this trumps other consideration. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as there are simultaneously other scholars who are critics of “presentism”. Maybe we need both!

    I also greatly respect L.D.’s response, especially because she makes clear her disagreement with Wood with intellectual rigor. That is, if I take her comments correctly, she suspects some creeping anti-intellectual Cold War agenda in Wood. (He seems “hysterical” about new ideas coming from post -structuralism, which might be almost a kind of philistinism) I hadn’t thought of that myself. As far as David Wienfeld’s comment go that seems to me to be THE ideal in a teacher and I applaud his mission. I have had both kinds of teachers: preachers who make no attempt at getting out of the way, so to speak, and those that were more “objective’ and though I have appreciated both but it seems the latter path seems better somehow. But then again I am an outsider, not an historian. The discussion was lively one.

  10. I apologize for not commenting on Gordon Wood directly, which I recognize is an interesting and somewhat separate debate, but I took the main thrust of Eran’s post to be about being open about having a presentist agenda in academia, either in scholarship or the classroom, and that Gordon Wood was simply an example of being deceptive about this. But my apologies if I in any way hijacked a discussion about Gordon Wood.

    • David, I guess your comment here went up while I was composing the comment below, which is not meant as a response to yours. However, it seems that my comment is written in something of the same spirit as yours.

  11. People come to the study of history for a lot of reasons, and they come with all kinds of different goals. Some of those they are conscious of, others they are perhaps unaware of. Some of those goals are political, narrowly or more broadly. But not all of them are, and I don’t think that’s a bug; I think that’s a feature.

    I also don’t think that this statement — “not all things are political” — is an apologia for the status quo. I mean it as a recognition that people — including people who take up the task of history as a professional endeavor — are motivated by a range of concerns and interests and desires and needs, and “the political” is just one of those things, and may be more salient for some than for others. I think we need to broadly accepting of that difference of perspective in one another.

    So one of the most distressing things about Wood’s essay (among many distressing and awful things) was the way delegitimized any interest but his own, or any kind of history but the kind he writes. Nobody is stopping Gordon Wood or his epigones from writing great man history of the state. There is a place within the broad, pluralistic endeavor of historical inquiry, for that kind of history. But the insistence that his approach is the only truly legitimate approach, that other avenues of inquiry that don’t toe his line are somehow “off the mark,” rather than simply different means of collectively reaching a better understanding of the past — that makes his essay petulant and peevish and puny in its vision of the field.

    Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul.

  12. Thank you all for these great comments.
    LD: I think we are pretty much in agreement, the bottom line though is that people have an agenda of some sort or another–political or otherwise–and I personally think that we should be transparent about it as much as we can. Furthermore, I think we should acknowledge that even if we do not have a political agenda, history is so pregnant with political implications that for the most part we cannot help having some kind of political intervention even if we imagine or hope we don’t. Some might be able to evade this fully, but very few, I think. In the case of Gordon Wood, his agenda if not 100% political, has significant political ramifications that we should acknowledge.

    David: I think your comments were quite on point. I did discuss agendas in history just as much as I did Gordon Wood’s rant that masqueraded as a review.
    I would only like to push you on one point. When you say “this is the most responsible way to teach history” what do you mean? Does that not have much to do with the present?

    Robin: I totally agree with your observations. I think history poses an interesting combination of contradictions. History is both familiar and strange, both have been at different times, for me at least, arresting discoveries. I think that since we are “stranded in the present” we wish to become part of the past through history. We are torn between our romantic desire to be in the past and our understanding that the past is, and will always will be, in the past. In a sense this is a very modern condition, as Fritzsche notes in his great book. We understand and appreciate change over time, but lament it, and then cuddle up in what we can make of it, at the same time.

  13. Interesting how it’s always going back to the facts that lets us see the world anew.

    Not so much adding the coloring as removing the previous one.

  14. It has been a stimulating past few days, both here and elsewhere on the internet. The level of comments here has been exceptionally high, and I have benefited from reading them all.

    Bernard Bailyn had a slim book published twenty years ago entitled, “On the Teaching and Writing of History.” In one of the interviews, Professor Bailyn said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the purpose of history was to allow one to transcend the barriers of one’s existence. As a consumer of others’ research, that is all I ask.

    In his Weekly Standard piece, Professor Wood states that modern historians have become irrelevant since ordinary people have to turn to works of non-academics who are not involved in the “incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.” I went to college and grad school during the 1980s, and I assure you that if one was interested in politics, political economy, or the political structures of the revolutionary generation, the journals of the era contained a plethora of articles by Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, Jack Rakove, Michael Kammen, and other participants of Bailyn’s graduate seminars of the 1960s. Incestuous indeed. Yes, I know that Jack Greene, Lance Banning, Edmund Morgan and others were publishing but there was a high concentration of Bailyn scholars. I, like L.D. Burnett am concerned with the structure of the historical profession. I am concerned with the increasing use of adjuncts and the unrelenting cutting of budgets by the states that the only viewpoints within the profession will be from those wealthy enough to attend those select institutions.

  15. Eran: first, I should say I misspoke there. I think teaching history in the fashion I described in the most responsible, but I have no doubt that many readers and contributors to this blog teach brilliantly while also revealing their biases and agendas.

    You’re probably right that I have an agenda too. But that agenda is to be as fair as possible to all reasonable points of view, to make students, comfortable, to introduce them to new ideas without attempting to sway their choices in the present. Thus it’s not my intention to teach a class in order to get my students to vote Democrat, or Republican. I think to teach with the present is mind at worst will skew your teaching, and at best is unnecessary.

    So my teaching has to do with the present only in so far as it allows students to see the present from new perspectives that brought together best reflect what some might call “truth,” or at least, a more informed position. How they act on those new perspectives is none of my business. And again the same is true with what I write in a scholarly/academic setting. Obviously I have my own biases, but I try to suppress them as much as possible.

    Not sure if I’m just repeating myself here but I’m getting a bit tired.

  16. Wonderful discussion, I am fully in agreement with Eran. I sympathize with the, er, not so humble ideal of teaching history (or any other of the human sciences) in a depoliticized fashion. One can certainly strive to that, but there are subjects that do demand a politicized angle–enslaved peoples is one clear example; another that has caused quite a media storm is the case of the graduate student at Marquette who was harrassed by her professors for not being “open” to a student’s clearly homophobic position. In such cases, my politics will make themselves evident and I see this as actually more responsible than the fiction of not taking sides. In fact, for me it’s not even about politics, it’s about ethical responsibility. There are moments when one has to intervene and correct views that are founded on misinformation and ignorance. And let’s not forget neutrality has its politics too, as we can see clearly in the mainstream news, where so-called journalists feel they have to offer the “two sides.” And now politicians want to push down the “two sides” logic in the public teaching of evolution, climate change, slavery in the US, etc. Sometimes, there’s only one correct (political) side.

  17. This is a wonderful post and a wonderful thread of comments. It’s also a very, very old discussion. I’m not sure how much to add except that ‘presentism’ also stretches beyond scholarship and back. To my mind, the most eloquent critic on this score is François Hartog whose just recently translated book Regimes of Historicity (Columbia, 2015) has been a standard reference point for a decade already among French historians vis-à-vis this jumble of problems—precisely because he recognizes that it’s not a single one for historians or for their audiences.

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