The Attack on History
Where is it Coming From?
It's no secret that the science of history, such as it was, is currently under attack by a number of highly visible and notably successful opponents. In agreement with Windschuttle and some others, we regard these attacks as not only unproductive, but frivolous. Why then have they arisen? Part of the answer is social, and part of it is built into the structure, and the peculiar vulnerability, of certain academic disciplines.
There is a long-term background development: the decline of "Classical" learning in the West. Classics departments, once the centerpieces of universities, have dwindled in size; not a few of them have closed. In academe as it has evolved, "Classics" was the field where the value of the past for the present, the value of history, was most clearly recognized, and most fully displayed. "History" in those days meant the study of Greece and Rome. A major effort was needed, some time ago, to establish "modern history" as a valid intellectual pursuit. That effort succeeded, but at the cost of a diminished prestige for the Classics. The study of any part of the more remote human past was affected. It would have been good, a century ago, to relocate the study of antiquity in History rather than in Classics. This wasn't done, and all of us are now suffering the consequences. The study of antiquity is thus all mixed up in people's minds with a pedagogy based on beating small boys until they have committed large stretches of Homer and Virgil to memory. This is not a tenable foundation for anything in the present century.
The Livelihood Question
Modern literature, like modern studies in general, thus came to be recognized in academe. Their later history in academe has raised other problems. (1) Some fields, such as English literature in the English-speaking countries, have a service function in universities: to teach basic literacy. So there are always going to be sizable departments of English in those universities. (2) By custom, permanent employment in universities, and more recently also in little colleges, requires the PhD degree. (3) By convention, PhD degrees are awarded only for research. (4) English literature is extensive, but PhD programs in English have tended to concentrate on only three writers: Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. Many of the researchable topics in those fields have long since been done and redone. People need PhD's, but how are they to get them if there are no researchable topics left? In this dilemma, any new way of looking at old material, any new gimmick, is automatically welcome. A new gimmick reopens all topics. The set of gimmicks loosely called "postmodernism" offered new readings, new angles, even new research topics, in abundance. Technically speaking, postmodernism had its purely intellectual appeal. Given these additional industrial considerations (the logic of the degree mill, the need to keep the literature PhD's coming into the marketplace), postmodernism very naturally spread like wildfire in a time of drought.
Fiction and Fact
Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" introduced the concept of the "nonfiction novel." It was taken up with great excitement by literary persons. If offered the possibility of crafting the mere known past into something more narratively satisfying, and more commercially salable. At least in America, this novelty produced a profound reorientation of the previously perceived boundary between truth and lies. The blurring of the boundary between truth and lies liberated journalism from its previous commitment to truth, and thus had a disastrous effect on journalism. The trend has recently reached the point where the public, which still wants truth and not creative imagination in its newspaper, has rebelled. Newspapers have begun to follow suit. Journalist Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe was fired when it was discovered that some of his most poignant human interest stories were simply invented. He had constructed the people about whom he wrote. There have been similar events in academe. Chair Professor Joe Ellis of Mount Holyoke College was stripped of his chair (though not his job) when it was revealed that the persona around which his institutional success had gathered was a pure fabrication. He had packaged himself for effect in the classroom.
This public backlash is encouraging, as a sign that the public's limits on moral imposture have been reached. There is no equally convincing sign that academe's own moral limits have also been reached. Scientific fraud is promptly exposed and severely punished. But the license to invent oneself or one's research subject has not been revoked across the academic board. While that license continues in effect, the core notion of historical investigation will continue to be disabled by its presence.
Denial of the Past
One detail of postmodernism and its cousins is an insistence that all explanations are relative, and all knowledge in the end uncertain. It follows that all narratives are equally valid, and all readings of a text are equally privileged. To put it as Stanley Fish did in his July 2002 defense of postmodernism, "there is no independent standard of objectivity." This stance is in conflict with the root idea of history. History assumes that some interpretations of past evidence are more adequate than other interpretations, that there is in principle a "right" (or most nearly "right") answer among many "wrong" answers, and that this possible distinction can at least sometimes be made in practice. On this matter, the cultural temper of modern society, especially in America, tends to side with the postmoderns and against the historians. America regards itself as a society which has escaped from history. Getting rid of history, getting free of what was holding you back before, is what America is all about. So for all the public annoyance with lying journalists and charlatan teachers, we don't look for mass demonstrations in support of the idea of academic history per se. The public constituency is not there. Not for that.
The liberal West has been involved in a collective guilt trip since the beginning of the 20th century. It doubts its success. It chides itself for usurping the lands of others. It blames itself for despoiling the planet. Insofar as it acknowledges its success, it doubts its right to that success. The push for "self-determination," for the power of the weak as well as the strong to create a national enterprise, was one of the key intellectual elements in the creation of the United Nations. This line of thought amounts to equal privileging, or even superior privileging, of the less dominant powers and tribes on the world cultural scene. It is the analogue of the "victim culture" which has taken root, over the same half-century, within America itself. The result is a society, and an intellectual tradition, which is ill-equipped to resist the claims of any culture, or any modern nation, to have the last word about itself. The older claims of historical science, as something situated above national culture and capable of making determinations about national culture, cannot be sustained in this intellectual climate. Perhaps not coincidentally, the politically self-interested rewriting of national history, especially in the Asian countries, has proceeded without any serious objection being raised. If historical objectivity has no secure home in the dominant nations, and if it is systematically subverted by the other nations, historical objectivity is in big trouble in the world at large. This is approximately the present situation.
There is also the "political correctness" cluster of values, which similarly asserts the validity of all oppressed viewpoints. PC confers a blank check on "victims," and abuse of that blank check has proved difficult to resist. There is no cultural basis for making judgements about the behavior of any group which has been judged to be victimized and thus deserving. Here is another open door for the fabrication of social history.
Even in America, with its famous disinterest in the past, history is still the great social validator. When representatives of special groups (women, homosexuals, blacks) began to appear in some numbers in academe, their first impulse was to restore their group to its due prominence by reinvestigating history, and more fully reporting the achievements which, it was assumed, previous historians had simply suppressed. This quest did not meet its own initial expectations. The restudied record of the past turned out to be unsupportive, or insufficiently supportive, of the membership certification needs of the present groups. The second phase of the membership quest thus consisted in an attempt to disable history itself, either by eliminating it as a discipline or by insisting that history could validly be written as an advocacy narrative. On the one hand, it is insisted that all investigators are biased, so that no opposing reading of the evidence has any objective validity. On the other hand, it insisted that bias may be unapologetically exploited in producing "histories" which support the author's cultural agenda. As with the national agendas for history, mentioned above, these social group agendas for history have not been significantly opposed in recent years. Society has no basis for opposing them, and academe has progressively forfeited the basis it once had. There is nothing of substance left.
In this climate, history quite reasonably sees itself as imperiled, and books on historical principles are typically framed not as expositions, but as last-ditch defenses.
This is not to say that history is dead. It is however possible that history will increasingly come to be practiced in the corners, not the core, of academe. The Project herewith announces itself as one of the corners.
27 Feb 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to History Page