Friday, July 23, 2010

History for the Public, or, Does the Center Hold?

Randall Stephens

NYU professor of history Thomas Bender's engaging on-line essay, "Historians in Public," at the SSRC has been making the rounds. He notes the worries of historians and social scientists, who think "that academic intellect has turned inward, cutting itself off from a role in public life."

Says Bender: "In the 1980s and 1990s instead of talk about and inquiry into “the public,” there was talk of publics, alternative publics, counter-publics, a black public sphere, and more. The list got pretty long, but the public dissolved in this otherwise invaluable historiography of the 1980s and 1990s. There was no United States. History was all parts, no whole. Bookstores organized American history by these identity-driven markets, often with no place for general histories. The challenge not taken up was how to narrate a whole made up of diverse and unequal parts. . . . Historians must bring the state back into relation to society, and along the way they need to rediscover the public. It will be, however, very different from [w]hat the early AHA . . . had in mind. And historians must make themselves a part of that public."

Unlike earlier calls for a unified history, this doesn't sound like a canon shot on the battlefield of the culture war. Though Bender's recommendations do bare some resemblance to those the late Arthur Schlesinger made in his 1991/1998 The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Schlesinger's polemic makes what Bender writes look almost tame, though. And, of course, Schlesinger was writing about the nature and function of American identity.

Here's Schlesinger: "[P]ressed too far, the cult of ethnicity has had bad consequences too. The new ethnic gospel rejects the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race. Its underlying philosophy is that America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups, that ethnicity is the defining experience for Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, and that division into ethnic communities establishes the basic structure of American society and the basic meaning of American history." (Disuniting of America, 20-21.)


Jonathan Dresner said...

Though I haven't read Schlesinger, I did read Bender as a culture-war salvo, dreary and oversimplified, and like most of those, the profession he described was nothing whatsoever like History as I've learned it or taught it. No recommendations that come out of such a misrepresentation could possibly be worth considering.

Randall said...

I disagree on the Bender piece. I think Russell Jacoby had some things right, too. One sign of a changed profession is in the role historians play (or don't play) in the public realm, beyond the walls of the academy.

Think of the public intellectual capital of Woodward, Schlesinger, DeVoto, Nevins, Hofstadter, Becker, Miller . . . etc. Who would match that today?

That may also be related to a larger phenomenon of a common culture of the mid-century. LIFE and Newsweek magazines were doing huge spreads on the work of artists like De Kooning, Johns, Krasner, Rauschenberg, and, most famously, Pollock (1949). It's hardly imaginable that a major middle brow magazine today would take such glee in contemporary artists. Do millions of Americans now know much of anything about contemporary artists like Koons, Nauman, Paik?

Do regular Americans read academic historians, besides Zinn or Fischer, today? Isn't that an interesting shift?

Jonathan Dresner said...

Well, there's Niall Ferguson, Lewis and Kramer on the middle east, Karen Armstrong on religion, Hawking and (the ant guy whose name escapes me) on science....

LIFE and Time don't drive the culture the way they used to. The commentariat is more fractured -- i.e., more diverse and healthy -- than it used to be, so looking for exact equivalences to the 'great men' era is ahistorical nostalgia, at best.

That the issue is real doesn't change the fact that Bender's description of the historical profession as irredeemably fractured, politically driven, etc., ignores both the realities of teaching (which is necessarily integrative and increasingly standards-driven) and of research (which is increasingly transnational, multi-faceted, theoretically complex and interesting).

Randall said...

I don't think one needs to throw out the Hoftsatder with the bathwater. And mid-century American intellectual life can't be reduced to the era of "great men." The profession and debates in the academy of today may or may not be "transnational, multi-faceted, theoretically complex and interesting." (Seems like an update on whiggism to me though.) Still, I can't see why it wouldn't be better for more historians to write more for the larger public and less for each other, less for their own private interests.

As Larry Friedman has pointed out, the more influential public intellectuals of our day tend to be scientists. So it makes sense that Hawking, Gould, Wilson, Dawkins, etc. stand out.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

In preparation for my world civ class this morning, I was reading yet another good history whose introduction claims to be writing for the "general public" while bemoaning the fact that so few histories are written for that demographic.
I actually think lots of people are doing this. Isn't there something to be said for the fact that just a whole lot more books are being written--many of them of course for academics, but tons of them (whether "good" or not) for the elusive "general public"? Yes, we can be sad (or not) that there may not be quite as large a shared intellectual culture now (are we just talking about American history/society here? asks the world historian), but I see many many good histories written for "a" general public--even if it isn't as universal as it may (or may not) once have been.