Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Historians Acting Badly

Eric Foner has now joined Sean Wilentz in labelling President Bush (II) as the worst president in history. The purpose of this entry is not to explain why both articles are ludicrous -- if you don't know that, you're in the wrong place. Instead, I want to consider what they suggest about history and historical reasoning.

In his thoughtful post about the Foner article at the Alincoln blog, Brian Dirck expressed concern that it was inappropriate for historians to write such articles:

"As a practicing, professional historian, however, I have no business using my professional status to turn that perspective into an historical judgment concerning Bush's relative worth compared to other presidents in American history. To do so is impossible.

"Worse, I think it risks turning our profession into nothing more than a witting tool for the political exigencies of the moment. I know there are those in my profession who feel historians can and should use their training in our craft to involve themselves actively in the political controversies of our day. I respect that point of view, but I'm afraid I'd have to disagree. Professional historians are far more valuable as dispassionate, sober analysts who can use the tools of our craft to promote balanced, careful assessments of both the present and the past."

As I commented there, I have a related, but somewhat different, concern. I wonder whether articles such as these demonstrate that the reasons traditionally given for studying history are meaningless propaganda spread by our high school history teachers.

I am not a professional historian, practicing or otherwise. I read history simply because I find it interesting and often amazing. It's simply incredible to me that the Greeks defeated the Persians, that Socrates lived (but never wrote a word), that the conception of the role of the federal government 150 years ago bears no relationship to our current understanding of it, or that men charged from the trenches in World War I. You couldn't, as they say, make this stuff up. I read history looking for answers sometimes, but they are usually answers to historical questions. How did the Russians and Chinese come to be ruled by monsterous regimes? Why did white southern yeomen enthusiastically back secession?

But most historians, I think -- and certainly my high school history teacher -- would claim far more for the study of history, summed up in the adage, "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." By studying history, the reasoning goes, one can learn lessons that can be applied to the present. I suppose the tendency to generalize is instinctive among humans, and I am guilty as everyone else, although I recognize that others may disagree with the conclusions I draw.

The most unfortunate corrolary of the Foner and Wilentz articles, I think, is that they tend to discredit the study of history and the generally accepted reason for studying history. If two such respected members of the academy can produce such silly partisan hit pieces cloaked in the objectivity of historically-based reasoning, does that not suggest that historically-based reasoning is an utter fraud -- something so malleable and manipulable that it is not worth the paper it is written on? The good professors seem bent on proving that the field of study to which they have devoted their lives wears no clothes.

Although my expectations are usually disappointed -- I do not recall historians condemning Professor Wilentz after his performance in The Rolling Stone -- I am hoping that Professor Foner's contribution may yet rouse historians (in addition to Professor Dirck) to express concern about the damage that such amateurish partisanship does to the study of history. I'm particularly hoping that historians such Don Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson will make their presence felt.

I'm going to watch for developments and will report any I encounter.


  1. Dear Elektratig,
    To be frank enough,so thought-provoking,logical and straight from within heart,your blog is,that I was drawn to go through it over and over again!
    Be what may come your way,you,I am
    sure,shall continue,to vent your views on such un-clotheds.
    Congrats !

  2. gazebo,

    Thanks for your good wishes.


  3. I agree. I agree that Bush is not our best president, but I think that only time will tell if he is really the worst (or even near the bottom of the list).

  4. Anonymous1:43 AM

    These historians are merely expressing their opinions. They have a right to do so, as American citizens.


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