U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians, the Columbos of Our Cultural Life (Guest Post by Paul Croce)

Editor's Note

We are pleased to offer our readers this guest post from Paul Croce, Professor of History and American Studies at Stetson University, a recent past president of the William James Society, and the author of Young William James Thinking (Johns Hopkins, December 2017). He also writes for The Public Classroom and the Huffington Post.  Earlier versions of this essay appeared in The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017, and in History News Network, August 27, 2017.


You don’t have to like the people you study and teach, but as with the TV private investigator Frank Columbo, get to know them.

The death of Thomas Haskell is sad news and a loss to the field of history.  James Kloppenberg, a friend of Haskell’s since their days together as fellow PhD students in History at Stanford, offers a fine tribute to his great work by highlighting the twin peaks of historical insight that Haskell practiced, “To Understand and to Judge.” On first reading Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science and “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” I found orienting understanding of modern American cultural and intellectual history, about how we think and how we feel.  These lessons are also good reminders that as historians, we don’t have to like what we learn.  Learning the worlds of our study is the mission of the historian.

Kloppenberg offers good practical advice about the importance of reticence; in an era of information overload that is also an act of charity.  And even more valuable than saying fewer words is the ability to choose words carefully.  This is particularly significant these days with a public culture featuring more heat than light on so many issues.  Historians have the gift of careful thought and abundant awareness of contexts.  We can offer these lights in the raging contemporary cultural scene.

Jim Kloppenberg’s words, and Thomas Haskell’s example offer good platforms for these public roles.  As they show, the good understanding that history can provide is built on both thorough research and seeing the topics of our stories from multiple points of view.  That will result in not only reporting on the historical record, but also both “respect[ing] the record,” as Kloppenberg points out, and also understanding the record even more deeply than would be possible with fewer angles of vision.

I first learned these historical lessons in my own historical studies of the psychologist and philosopher William James.  He advocates what I call an “unblinking” approach to experience.  Selective attention to comfortable slices of the world, to ideas and behaviors where we feel “at home” are so common, but perpetually distorting.  He urges keeping open to different “sentiments of rationality,” and he quickly adds that listening to diverse points of view does not mean abandoning one’s own.  Such listening might even enrich them, and it will surely help in dealing with those strange “others” who disagree.

Openness to what the historical record has to teach is the first art of the historian.  Addressing it with both diligence and humility is the best way to maintain “truthfulness to it,” as Kloppenberg says of Haskell.  And James’s unblinking approach can continue to illuminate for our time, to coach toward our goals of fidelity to the historical record.

I offer an example of this form of critical listening to recent historical events in the essay “What We Can Learn From Fake News.”  Historians can enrich public discourse not just by critiquing fake news stories, but also by attempting to learn how they appeal.

Historians can become like the Columbos of our public life.  In Peter Falk’s memorable role as the private investigator Lieutenant Frank Columbo, he would solve crimes by getting to know the suspects.  In the same way, historians let us get to know the producers and consumers of fake new, and the whole array of characters, from heroes to villains, in our cultural dramas.   That understanding of how we think and feel can help all citizens be better judges of the worlds around them.

Paul Croce

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Paul, thanks for sharing this essay. And, to take a page from Columbo, “Just one more thing…”

    I’m not sure whether or not we are still in a world where James’s observations about selective attention make sense. His philosophy emerged with and in and perhaps to some extent from the “Land of Desire” that William Leach has described. People have long been concerned about how advertising creates desire and shapes taste and has turned citizens into consumers. And perhaps it’s just the declensionist/prophet of doom in me who wants to mark our time as somehow different. But is the age of the algorithm, the tailored ad, the individually targeted false news story really still the same age as the age of the billboard? Even if it’s not the same age, it could very well be that William James is still the best guide to help us through it. But I don’t know. If we are unblinking now, perhaps it’s because our eyes are being pried open (I’m thinking of the movie Brazil) — or that our gaze has been tracked and captured and remade because we cannot choose to look at anything the algorithm doesn’t want us to see.

  2. Thanks Lora for the thoughtful comment. Where I encourage recognition of different points of view, you find it difficult or impossible even to recognize any distinct points of view worthy of the name, since they are all products of advertising creating desire and shaping taste. So the “unblinking” that I intended as a metaphor for openness to intellectual differences becomes simply the manufactured gaze, the point of view already “tracked and captured.”
    This does point to the darkest features of the information revolution, all present in current culture, but they are not the only things present or available. So it is up to all of us to be aware of these dangers, and also to be aware of other potentials, in digital and non-digital form, for other possible futures. Advertising, for all its very real shaping power, does not force buying, of things or of fake news.
    Enter education. It can serve as the thin red line supporting independent critical thinking in the face of the juggernaut for the manufactured gaze you warn about.
    Neither I nor James himself would call James the best guide to light up such independent thinking, but he is one of many resources to support this path, all the more needed because of the strength of just the forces you point to. After all, as you wrote in your recent essay at this smoke signal, “Choices and Changes in Western Culture,” “Every college student deserves the opportunity to make … choices.” As educators, as historians, we can keep those opportunities alive.

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