Context for Dissatisfaction with History

Yes, I am a historian. And yet, for the past two decades, I have been very unhappy with the direction of my discipline. Many historical articles (both popular and academic) now emphasize how people felt in the past, rather than what they did and why. There is little rational analysis, just a retelling of stories to emphasize their possible (and sometimes improbable) emotional context.

I find this emphasis on feelings not only disconcerting, but difficult to see as factually based. The evidence is not only sketchy, but its interpretation is often subject to presentism (the tendency to put the expectations of the present onto the past). But, I thought, it must only be me – everyone else in the profession seems pretty darned happy, getting published in the increasingly large numbers of historical journals and participating in professional conferences at the American Historical Association.

So today I was listening to an old CD I have, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US, a speech he gave in 1995 at Reed College. And he mentioned postmodernist history, and in particular Gertrude Himmelfarb. I found her enlightening essay Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History (1992) and finally understood.

What I’m seeing really has been happening, inside the profession, since I got my degree. I’ve certainly noticed it everywhere, not only in history books (few of which I can stomach anymore) but in popular culture. There, especially in novels and films, history is merely a setting, not a context. Interestingly, it was 1998 (only a few years after Himmelfarb’s article and Zinn’s speech) when I first noticed it, in the film Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett.  Queen Elizabeth’s power or the events of the time played no role in the film – it was all about the emotions felt by the queen and her cast of characters. I learned nothing and came out thinking nothing. And, of course, over the last two decades we’ve seen a rise in what I call X-culture: Extreme Everything, from bloodshed in films to reality TV to news reporting. If it isn’t extreme sports, or extreme comedy, or extreme horror, we no longer care.

So it turns out there really has been a trend in the discipline of history too, which Himmelfarb put in the context of postmodernism, and its emphasis on creativity and imagination over hard historical work and, well, facts. And I don’t think her points about multiculturalism are far off the mark either. In addition to the melting pot and salad bowl examinations of cultural difference and assimilation, we now add a framework that imaginatively puts certain groups of people on top, in a superior place to which they may well have aspired but never in fact possessed. While such a technique may provide insight into what people may have felt, or may have wanted, it is ahistorical and belongs in the literary realm.

Thus when people suggest I should go back and get my Ph.D., or publish more in my field (instead of on the subject of online teaching), I recoil. I’d rather hold up the old-guard modernist history, based on modern methodology and the collection, examination and interpretation of facts. I know those facts also include people of many cultures, backgrounds, genders, etc., and that they can be used to successfully celebrate all people without resorting to make-believe. And that’s not my imagination.