How History Came to Matter

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An incident that occurred during my first year of graduate school remains indelibly etched in my memory.  Our cohort was invited to spend an hour with the great popular historian Barbara Tuckman, who had just published Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 and would soon complete A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.

A classmate, who I will not name, but who subsequently became a chaired professor at a leading university and is widely known for his work on gender and power, subjected the author of The Guns of August and later of The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, to fierce questioning about her research methods, sources, and modes of analysis.

Awkward doesn’t begin to describe how I felt.  Here was a scholar who had done more than any academic historian to shape the public’s view of our collective past, condescended to by a graduate student.  Who were we, who hadn’t yet published anything, to question her bona fides?

I’ve just finished a grand, sweeping, 770-page popular account of the people who recorded and informed the western world’s understanding of its collective past – from Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Flavius Josephus, Plutarch, and Suetonius to Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Hegel, and Marx, to Winston Churchill, William L. Shirer, David Halberstam, Stanley Karnow, David McCullough, Mary Beard, C.L.R. James, Simon Schama, Ken Burns, and Hilary Mantel.

Historically-inclined anthropologists, economists, journalists, memoirists, sociologists, and authors of historical fiction co-exist alongside professional historians.

Richard Cohen’s Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past is an idiosyncratic, opinionated, sprawling, and wildly uneven account of how, over time, western societies developed historical consciousness – a understanding of the temporality of historical experience and of how the past, present and future are interconnected.

Cohen’s overarching argument, not radically dissimilar from that made by John Lukacs in The Future of History and John Burrow in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, is that as history has become more and more professionalized, and as historians have become subsumed within academic departments, history risks losing its ability to grip the public imagination.  Popular history is crucial, Cohen argues, in helping readers situate themselves within the sweep of history, grapple with some of the biggest historical issues – such as the historical impact of personality and consequences of decisions – and understand the texture of life and the mentalities of people in the past.

Cohen’s book certainly has its flaws.  It’s Eurocentric in the extreme, utterly dismissive of Arab historians with the exception of Ibn Khaldūn and of China, except for Ban Zhao, and largely oblivious to the historians of South Asia and the indigenous histories of Africa and the Americas.  Its chapter on 20th century Marxist historians is flippant and contemptuous.  Infused with an anti-religious animus, the volume’s coverage of key figures strikes me as arbitrary and at time superficial, its interpretations of key works cursory, and some of its judgments mischievous.  

Yet it also reminds us that the most successful works of history create enthralling narratives that alter public understanding of the past and influence the present in profoundly meaningful ways.

As Cohen persuasively argues, the most consequential works of history, like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, speak to their historical moment.  With his portrait of how Christianity’s triumph supposedly doomed Europe to “a thousand years of superstition and fanaticism,” Gibbon spoke forcefully to the Enlightenment’s aspiration to substitute rationality for religious delusions.

Cohen has not written a history of historiography.  Only indirectly does he shed light on how the public grew increasingly aware of and interested in the past and drew upon history (or, rather, simulations of the past) in architecture, dress, and literature, subjects that are explored in greater depth in Daniel Woolf’s The Social Circulation of the Past: English Historical Culture 1500-1730 and Rosemary Sweet’s Antiquaries.

Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss this book as a literary analogue to Vanity Fair: as gossip of the highest order (despite his rib-splitting take-downs of Hugh Trevor Roper and AJ.P. Taylor).

Making History tells readers a great deal about how stories have shaped conceptions of the past with profound cultural consequences.  Cohen’s discussion of the Passover story offers a vivid example.  The Biblical account of the Israelites 400 years of toil followed by the exodus from Egypt has very little archaeological or historical substantiation.  Yet it informs perhaps western culture’s most enduring idea: That human history, in every generation, involves liberation from some form of slavery.

It’s no accident that Benjamin Franklin proposed that the United States’s Great Seal bear an image of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

The true value of Cohen’s book doesn’t lie in the preoccupations of professional historians with schools of historical interpretation, debates over objectivity and bias, or historiographical controversies.  Rather, the author is interested in how all of those who seek to bring the past to life have shaped and distorted collective understandings of the past and colored the lessons that the public draws from history. He also pays close attention to those Black and women historians who have challenged orthodox narratives.

It’s not that Cohen is uninterested in professional historians’ agendas.  He certainly is, and cites many examples of history used as a weapon to propagandize and reinforce dogma or glorify the nation.  But precisely because he recognizes that historians hold no monopoly over the past, he is equally interested in the ways that other purveyors of the past have shaped historical consciousness.

Thus, readers will learn a great deal about how notions of historical development and progress evolved, and how the concepts of historical stages and distinct epochs of time (like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment) emerged.  Readers will see how debates over historical objectivity and bias, and the tension between contingency, human agency, and various forms of determinism arose. The book also examines the growing attempts to humanize the past by expanding its boundaries far beyond diplomacy, politics, and war.

As a teacher of history, my Number 1 goal is to teach my students to think historically.  That requires my students to understand:

1. That our lives are situated within a historical continuum – a sequence of events that stretches backward into the distant past and forward, into an uncertain future.

2. That our values, practices, and social arrangements are the products of particular cultural contexts that shift over time. 

3. That historical events are contingent – the product of particular choices, circumstances, and pressures, and are, therefore, not predetermined or inevitable, but are the product of multiple causes.

In other words, historical thinking involves chronological awareness, contextual thinking, and an awareness of the importance of contingency and multicausality.

Historical thinking is not innate, nor does it come naturally.  Much as geographical awareness and scientific understanding only emerged gradually over time, so did historical consciousness.

In one sense historical consciousness is very old, almost as old as recorded history.  Some of the classical societies of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle and Near East were acutely aware of genealogy. The Old Testament includes many references to priestly and royal lines of descent, though it seems clear that many of those genealogies are bogus, manufactured rather than rooted in reality.

The ancient Greek and Roman aspiration to achieve posthumous fame (which existed as a kind of substitute for the Christian-like conception of a Heavenly afterlife) also bred a certain level of historical awareness.  So too did their sense that humanity had evolved through a series of ages, of gold, silver, bronze, and iron.

But it was only with Herodotus’s Histories and Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War that we begin to see the emergence of conceptions of history rooted in methodical investigation. In fact, the very word history meant systematic inquiry.

Herodotus, of course, examined the history of rituals and customs, of beliefs and behavior, and engaged in what we’d now call social history or ethnohistory.  Thucydides, in contrast, concentrates on military and political affairs.  The classical historians: 

  • Offered real-life lessons, examples, and antecedents that people might draw upon in understanding human nature or present-day realities.  
  • Identified patterns in history as order gives way to disorder (or vice versa) and freedom or republican virtue rise and fall.
  • Provided realistic, if cynical, observations into how rulers govern and how neighboring states interact. 

However, the gradual emergence of recognizably modern conceptions of history’s utility took place far more recently.  Machiavelli’s historical works exemplify history’s value.  By looking to ancient Roman history and examining how the elite pursuit of power led to the Roman Republic’s collapse, he was able to make sense of the conflicts disrupting Florentine politics.

From the 16th century onward, debates over history begin to loom larger in public conversations.  We witness growing controversies over whether history has design or direction, whether history is or isn’t progressive, and whether history is driven by ideas, “world-historical” individuals, elites’ or nations’ pursuit of power, stages of economic development or shifts in modes of production, or various contingencies.

Even more recently, we learned about the role of ordinary women and men in making history and began to recognize the need to rectify historic wrongs

It’s noteworthy that it was not until the late 19th century that the idea of a professional historian emerged, with its emphasis on archival research, peer review, and its dream of objectivity and impartiality.

Cohen, like Lukacs and Burrow, considers grim, sober, highly specialized professionalization as the true enemy of effective history, which depends for its emotional power on drama, wit, style, passion, and vision.  By abandoning historicism, grand narratives, and an emphasis on storytelling, professional historians risk losing their audience.

Years ago, I had a casual conversation with Ric Burns, shortly after he had written the screenplay for his brother’s Civil War documentaries.  I recall him saying that his goal was to revise the master narrative of American history.  It was a very provocative thing to say at a time when literature departments called for the deconstruction, indeed, the repudiation, of all master narratives.

Which brings me to today.

I’ve been serving on a committee that makes content recommendations about how to revise Texas’s K-12 social studies standards that do so much to shape textbooks nationwide.  Apart from suggesting ways to draft learning objectives for each grade that are clear, specific, substantive, grade-appropriate, well-sequenced, and readily assessable, I’ve also tried to push for an overarching narrative organized around the words inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum, from many, one.

These words, in my view, offer a way to speak to the diversity of the state and the nation, but also to the principles, history, customs, traditions, and institutions that connect Texans and Americans as a people.

I want every student to see their ancestral cultures well represented within the social studies curriculum.  I want to ensure that students encounter a history that is fully honest – that exposes the tragedies, abuses, violence, and hardships, as well as the conflicts over power, resources, and values, that are indelible parts of our past.  But I also want to ensure that students learn a history that they will find empowering.

To think that in our highly polarized, highly politicized environment one can achieve consensus around such a curricular vision may well be a fool’s errand.  Maybe it’s best, as one prominent colleague put it in a telephone call, to leave the standards as vague as possible, giving teachers greater leeway in their classrooms.

Still, I dream.

In 1879, Albion W. Tourgée anonymously published a novel entitled  A Fool’s Errand, By One of the Fools.  Today, Tourgée is best remembered as the lead attorney for Homer Plessy in the notorious 1896 case that legally sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine that underpinned racial segregation.  He was also the first figure to call for justice to be “color blind.”

Tourgée’s novel drew upon the Ohio-born author’s experience as a Union soldier – who had fought in the first battle of Bull Run and at Chickamauga and Chattanooga and was held as a prisoner of war in the Confederacy’s notorious Libby Prison – and who subsequently moved to North Carolina, where he served as a judge and a delegate to the state’s 1868 and 1875 constitutional conventions.

Why did Tourgée – an outspoken opponent of lynching, segregation, disfranchisement, white supremacy, and scientific racism — described his efforts for racial justice as a “fool’s errand”?

In his view, Reconstruction failed because it proved unable to surmount the political and cultural barriers to racial justice:

  • The refusal of the federal government to intervene sufficiently to suppress anti-Black violence and enforce African Americans’ civil rights.
  • The persistence of racism in the North as well as the South, which had the practical effect of making Black migration northward largely impossible.
  • The privileging of sectional reconciliation above racial justice.

I’m certainly no Albion W. Tourgée, and I fully recognize that whatever I do as a professor pales in comparison to Tourgée’s valiant quest to make this society more equal and just.  But fool that I am, I continue to believe that a fuller account of the past can contribute to a fairer and more empathetic and compassionate society and give our students a sense of their own agency.

We ultimately teach history not to indoctrinate or propagandize or excuse or render judgment, but to nurture understanding.  Our students need to grasp the complexities of human character, the diversity that lies across time and space, the dynamics of social change, the costs and benefits of progress, and the exotic nature of the present.  They need to learn, as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that human beings “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Only then can they begin to consider themselves educated beings.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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