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When is it not history?

22 July, 2006

When is it not history?

Short answer: when you think that, by studying an aspect of the past, you can change the present.

ETA: For “history”, read “doing history in the sense of studying and/or professing history” not “at what point does history, the study of the past, stop being history.” After reading meg and NK’s comments below, I realized I wasn’t perhaps as clear as I should have been. This is not about history being a valid field of study … it’s more about what I see as the duties of the historian when actually doing history. I’m not saying that who we are and what our own interests are doesn’t or shouldn’t in some way influence our choices of subject — if that were true, we wouldn’t have social, intellectual, political, economic, institutional, whatever history. I’m saying that when we let our interests in those things in the now drive and guide how we read and interpret and publicise the past, we are in danger of privileging the cause over the subject or the approach.

Apropos of this post and the comment threads here and at AIR, I’ve done some thinking. Part of it comes back to a question that most of us deal with on a regular basis, especially if we are in the classroom or lecture hall — how is this relevant? My answer is, increasingly, “I don’t know. Why should it be? Shouldn’t you decide how it is relevant to you?”
Not history. Social engineering that uses history. That’s a different thing.

I can explain the relevance of History as a discipline. For me, at least, it accentuates many of my natural thought processes and encourages my inclinations towards skepticism and picking things apart till you think they can’t be picked anymore — then putting them back together a different way and looking for holes. The knowledge that my subjects are not like us means that I have to try to imagine what it would be like to be like them: it will always be an approximation, but I have to play by their social rules, which means I have to develop some empathy and understanding. Those skills are things I do use on a daily basis in the present when confronted with trying to understand current political situations, my fellow citizens, visiting other countries — or even other parts of this country.

As far as why Eastern Francia or Stuart England or Lombard Italy are relevant? I can’t help you, except to say that the stuff these people did happened within a greater time-stream that seems to have got us here and now (this is one of those places where the Histroy of Science wonks have it made — there, you really do seems to be able to relate one event to the next in an idea of ‘progress’). Some of this is conscious, some not. Some is based on reiterations of “what happened” that are more or less correct, some of those interpretations have now been corrected — but we have to deal with the fact that the misinterpretations have had influence. All of this is meaningful, all of this adds to to a greater understanding of the world, but as far as personal relevance goes? That’s up to you.

I think that, by learning to understand the past — and that means knowing that it’s the quest that’s important, and that, even though we defend our conclusions with every shred of evidence available, those conclusions can be overturned with a single new document, or argued into a new interpretation, and that’s a good thing — we can learn to understand the present better. But understanding the past to change the present? Or to undo wrongs of the past in the present? I think that’s where you cross the line and stop doing history.

Part of me thinks that this is particularly a danger for the modernist, or at least some modernists. Perhaps because some perfectly acceptable approaches for modern historians still allow for thinking of history as progess? But the minute one thinks of history as progress, one is almost forced to use the present as the standard of measurement, and that’s not going to result in good history.

Perhaps more importantly, the recent past is accessible in a way that cannot help but to be personal. My own views of the Depression, World War II, and post-War Britain are colored by having heard the personal recollections of my grandparents, in-laws, and ex-husband. But I also know that those experiences, even though they’ve often been presented as normative, might not be. My favorite example is the story of my ex-husband’s birth — he was born in his grandmother’s bed, as were his brothers. I asked if that were normal, because he was born in 1951, after all, and was told it was. And you know, it was normal for the people in their neighborhood, which was poor. But another friend was born in a different part of England, four years earlier, and to a different class. For him, the idea of being born at home was abnormal — even his much older siblings were born in hospital. Intellectually, I of course always knew that these stories in part show — that people of different social groups probably had different ideas of normality. But there is an unconscious temptation to give more weight to the person, to the eyewitness account, that one knows, and that makes for bad history.

I think that “identity X” history can combine the worst of the dangers I’ve mentioned. There is an idea of history with a goal, and there is trust of the personal account — except in this case, the personal account is often the personal experience of the historian and the people closest to him or her. For what it’s worth, I think that Americans who are historians of American history have to face many of the same challenges (as do Germans who do post war Germany, etc.). And the more I think about it, if you’ve chosen to do the history of something because you have a personal identification (in real time) with it and an interest in using it to make your own personal identifications explicable and meaningful, you really aren’t doing history — you’re doing sociology or journalism or poli sci or genealogy, but whatever it is, you’ve crossed the line and compromised your objectivity. Because, if it’s all about you, it isn’t history, I don’t think.

Update: Alun Salt offers his typically cogent views at Archaeoastronomy and Revise and Dissent.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 July, 2006 3:30 pm

    Actually, I don’t have a problem with doing history to change something about the present. At one level, I study gender in the past in order to better understand it in the present, and when I teach it, I hope that students can take something away from what they learn in my class to be able to understand the present. But it’s not a direct, cause-and-effect kind of thing – because the Middle Ages was like this, we are like that, and we can change it by doing x, y, or z. It’s more like I study issues in the past that are important to me in the present, on the premise that being more informed about these issues in another time can help me understand them in my own time. And I guess I think that if, for instance, you want to change gender inequalities, or racism, or heterosexism, or etc., in your own time, you HAVE to understand the history of those things. And I think there are ways to study things to which you have a personal connection that ensure objectivity – after all, although we write as individuals, we write as part of a scholarly community, and someone who gives inappropriate weight to certain sources is going to get called on that by others in that scholarly community. I guess for me, it’s the flip side of saying you don’t have to “be one to study it” – you also can study stuff if you are a member of that group, if that makes any sense.

  2. 22 July, 2006 3:53 pm

    I confess that I find your why-I-do-history a bit impoverished. To sharpen skepticism and develop the imagination? That’s not going to keep the humanities-hating wolves from the door.I agree with NewK (although, of course, I’m not a historian at all — but I still do a fair amount of history). Understanding the past increases many-fold our chances of understanding the present. Insofar as understanding can (but need not) be the first step toward changing, I don’t see anything wrong with enlisting history in the cause of social change, in principle. Which is not to say that I don’t find myself fuming at certain types of enlistment.

  3. 22 July, 2006 3:59 pm

    I agree almost entirely (not the first sentence). And I think we are drawn to studying the things that are important to us and that those things do color our teaching. I hope that a wider understanding of any subject makes us able to redress wrongs in the present — but again, I think the line is crossed when we take what is relevant to us, and present it to others as something that should be relevant to them.For me, it’s about institutional power relationships and civil liberties. So I really try to break up a lot of my teaching so that those aren’t the only issues I deal with. Part of this is my own belief that pubic education exists to make good citizens … but I more often find myself arguing positions I don’t agree with in order to try to teach a more comprehensive picture.And I absolutely agree with the idea that you have to understand the history of an issue to fix it — but I think that it’s a very slippery slope if the reason for studying something historical is to fix the present. I think it’s the historian’s job to help provide information, narrative, context, etc., but not to actively try to convince people of the rightness of a particular value system when acting in their role as historians. And it’s bloody hard.

  4. 22 July, 2006 4:22 pm

    Argh — meg, that’s not exactly what I meant. I was trying to explain that it’s not necessarily the historical subject that is important, but the way historians approach the subject, in terms of achieving the understanding of the present. So (despite my own personal beliefs that Medieval and Ancient history are important), I think that students can learn as much about understanding the present from an African or Asian history course, despite the fact that those cultures might be even more remote to the student. And again, I’m not against enlisting history for change. I think it’s necessary for anyone who wants to effect change. BUT that’s not the same as doing history. It’s the difference between my having political opinions and arguing them by marshalling as much historical and other evidence as possible when talking politics — something I might be better equipped to do than a non-historian, but something I’m doing in my capacity as private citizen. I am just very leery of abusing my position in front of students, at least when it comes to using history to fix the present. I’d much rather give the students the tools to use it themselves.

  5. 22 July, 2006 6:35 pm

    I agree with you on both points. The teaching of history and the value of history are two different things.I certainly understand what you are saying about not wanting to abuse your position but, instead, give your students the tools to figure things out for themselves. There is a balance which needs to be struck between giving students the information they need and coloring that information with opinion. It’s a delicate balance, particularly when teaching history – which is almost impossible to do without bringing a personal viewpoint to it, even by a person trying to be impartial while writing a history textbook.The thing that is such a shame is that many people don’t even realize that such a balance even exists, much less that it is necessary.And I think history can be interesting in its own right, looking at it as a series of isolated incidents. It is often entertaining in the way fiction is entertaining. It is often intriguing because the people and events were intriguing.But I think the most valuable aspect of history is to learn from it so that the worst mistakes of the past are not repeated. So, the teaching of it also needs to instill this understanding in students.For a very simplistic example, the lesson of the French Revolution is what happens when the gap between the haves and have nots becomes too extreme…especially when the haves make a practice of subjecting the have nots to gross injustice. Now, my take is this. If the U.S. government had paid more attention to that lesson, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so supportive of the Shah of Iran, who fostered the same environment in his country. Then, perhaps the have nots in Iran would not have been so ready to support the Ayatollah, who has funded the Hezbollah terrorists.But, you see, there are many people in this world who would have a completely different take on that. And there could conceivably be a combination of viewpoints in the same classroom. So, IMHO, a teacher has to remain as objective as possible while teaching students the art of critical thinking.It’s kind of like that old Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish, don’t you think? You can give students facts and conclusions, or you can give them the facts and teach them how to reach their own conclusions.

  6. 22 July, 2006 7:24 pm

    My interest in this question is in large part pragmatic: How can we protect the humanities from further predation of respect and funding at the hands of those who don’t see the point of what we do.So, while I agree about giving students the tools rather than forcing my own (personally-motivated, inevitably) interpretations on them, I also want and need to show them a few of the possibilities. Often students don’t naturally make that leap from, say, the post-Conquest Constitutions of Clarendon (which, among other things, forbade English-speakers from learning to read, more or less) to similar laws for 19C slaves in the USA or women in Talibanian Afghanistan. It is my obligation to point out the connections — a very political act, and one motivated by my own politics. I am confident that we agree on principle. But it’s vitally important that we are super-careful about how we articulate our mission, because we are under attack just as much as evolutionary biologists. They may be under intense public fire by the enemies of knowledge, but we are fighting a cold war in which we are trivialized before being eliminated. Accusations of politicization are tantamount to saying “You’re not being trivial enough!”

  7. 22 July, 2006 7:26 pm

    Yep .. so that, for me, one of the things I’d make sure that the students understood, is that the rhetoric of revolution doesn not always match up to the reality … because it wasn’t the have-nots who led the revolution, just like it wasn’t the English people at large who benefitted from Magna Carta — it was the people who didn’t think they had enough, or maybe a group of people who realized that the balance of political and economic power had shifted, but not enough for them and not quickly enough — the poor? Cannon fodder. But cases like that are why I want the students to learn to do history … so they can then use it to make those further leaps.

  8. 22 July, 2006 7:50 pm

    Oh, I agree with you entirely about the attacks, meg — the Florida law is one of but a few scary examples. And I admit that much of what I’m saying is in response to those attacks. It could also be seen as being very subversive, in that what I want is to turn out thoughtful, well-grounded-in-the-liberal-arts people — and I want it started before college. And dammit — I am willing to take the things we teach in the humanities and turn them into the kind of skill sets that look good on a resume, if that’s what it takes. I am not ashamed that the things I got from a solid background in the LA has kept me employed. And it’s not that I don’t bring politics into the classroom, but for example, if we read about the slave trade in the ancient world and talk about what factors usually caused someone to be a slave, it’s inevitable that someone will bring up a comparison to the experience of African slaves in the Americas. I think comparing the two and their contexts is a valid historical exercise. And then I will ask them to compare it to the slavery of today — something most students don’t know exists, and which is arguable — are children sold into brothels in SE Asia slaves? What about au pairs kept locked in suburban homes? We don’t go on about it at length, but I can usually point them to places to find out more, if they ask. And because we’ve already established that slavery can exist in different contexts, with different rules, over different times and places, the students are left to decide whether slavery indeed exists in the modern world and how that fits into their own world view. I do the same with ideas of masculinity and femininity … the trick there is to keep the focus on the past, but remind the students that the questions still are relevant, and that asking them about the present, while trying to maintain the distance that’s normal in examining the past, they might understand the other better in the present.

  9. 22 July, 2006 9:27 pm

    I’m far from believing that the teaching of history is trivial. In fact, I think the opposite is true.While it’s true that the masses do not lead revolutions, their support is almost invariably necessary to win revolutions. And, as ADM points out, not usually to their benefit. This suggests to me that, if the masses are better informed as to events in the past, they will perhaps be wiser in choosing their leaders.Personally, I could go from there to make connections to government in our own country, as well as in other countries today. But I am just one infallible person.I still think it is of the utmost importance to at least make an attempt to divorce the teaching of history from any personal cultural and/or political points of view. Otherwise, the distortion evident in the past will continue into the future, with possibly disastrous results…not the least of which is total lack of cohesion between people from different areas of the world. I would prefer American students not learn World, or even American, History with any type of bias whatsoever. I know it’s difficult, maybe even impossible. But I believe it’s necessary to at least try.I don’t want Ann Coulter wannabes teaching history to future generations and I don’t want universities to have the right to question teachers about their politics. If objectivity is present in the classroom, neither of those possibilities should need to be addressed.

  10. 22 July, 2006 9:41 pm

    I’m so sorry, I went to that last conclusion without any explanation.I’m afraid that if teachers begin to go too far in one direction or another in presenting their personal views in class, that some universities will try to start making “policy”. As little as I want personal views taught in the classroom, do I want “institutionally approved” views in the classroom. It really just seems best to me to aim for as objective a presentation as possible in the first place.

  11. 22 July, 2006 9:53 pm

    I think you are painting the problem with far too broad a brush. A personal identification and an interest in the present does not mean that the scholar assumes her subjects are just like her and playing by the same social rules. Many of the things you reference as good and bad are not mutually exclusive of each other.I am interested in world history because we are living in an increasingly global age–by your standards, then, I am not doing history. If I privilege the global interactions and interconnections over the comparative civilizations approach in teaching world history, because we are living in an increasingly global age–am I therefore not doing history? In fact, you have no clue whether I am or not, because whether or not I am doing history is not dependent on the “why”, but on the “what” and “how”. How do I read documents? How do I encourage my students to read them? How do I write about them? That is the only place we can identify history being done or not done.You seem to think that there is some pure unchanging entity called “objectivity” that can be compromised (as does commenter Rebecca), but I think there is not. Every approach to history is an effect of letting “our interests in those things in the now drive and guide how we read and interpret and publicise the past.” Great men history, social history, the ocean worlds paradigms–all of them are driven by interests in the now. Again, this in itself is not enough to invalidate any of the resulting history.

  12. 22 July, 2006 10:13 pm

    I’m sorry, Dee — I don’t understand what the connection to world history is. Except that yes, if you are privileging the connections and interactions in a way that distorts reality, then I would say that you are not doing history well. Because you can’t pretend that the world has always been global in the way it is now. It simply hasn’t. Moreover, the only way to explain some of why we live in a ‘global age’ is to break down the events in ways that might not talk about interaction all the time.Even if you were able to, how can you explain those interactions without a solid understanding of the people involved? I’ve met no one as yet who has the command of languages and general background necessary to really understanding the interactions — except perhaps in the modern age, when much of the globe became dominated by a fairly small range of European languages. But I think you have to understand the specific to make usefule and honest sense of the general.And my point is not that objectivity is an unchanging entity — it’s that it is a particularly slippery ideal, but one we should try to achieve. If the ‘why’ drives the ‘what’ and ‘how’, you have given up even the pretense of trying to achieve objectivity.

  13. 22 July, 2006 10:40 pm

    I agree with most of what you’re saying here about how to do history; I think from the examples you give that we’re doing the same thing, but I guess I would just describe it slightly differently. I think that my interests in what I’d like to see today and the future look like do, inevitably, color my approach to history, and to teaching. I do teach about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving students tools for understanding the present. But I don’t therefore try to lead students to a given conclusion about the Middle Ages (or today), even when I have a particular conclusion about that.As for Dee’s comment – I don’t want us to get distracted by the world history debate (you know we disagree about world history), but I think you can substitute any field for world history in the example she gives. I do think, for instance, that it’s perfectly reasonable in teaching world history to focus on interconnections in the past because today we are so connected. The past interconnections weren’t the *same* as today’s, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there, and because someone chooses to focus on that one aspect in light of modern developments doesn’t, I think, render them incapable of teaching those past connections well. For me, that’s because any survey (like world history, maybe especially world history) is by necessity selective, and it is the historian’s prerogative (in fact, obligation) to pick something around which to organize their selectivity. If that makes sense. Being comprehensive is a pipe dream, I think. But it’s important to recognize that being comprehensive isn’t the same as being balanced.Maybe this is more concrete: when I teach about ideas about women in the Middle Ages, there are definitely ideas that I don’t agree with. And a scary number of the ideas that I don’t agree with are still around today, unfortunately. When I teach these ideas, I think it’s important for students to be able to recognize the ways in which many of these ideas are still around, so I may be likely to emphasize those ideas that are continuous. And I’m not, at the end of the day, unwilling to tell students how I feel about those ideas, if they ask (just because I think that’s honest). But I nonetheless teach about the mental structures and frameworks that supported the medieval ideas about women, and while I don’t justify them, I make sure that students understand what they are and how they worked and why they developed/succeeded in this time period. I don’t walk into the classroom and say, “These ideas were bad and you have to work to get rid of them today.” But I do think that studying these things can help change ideas about them in the present day. Now, I also think that a student should be able to come out of my class saying, Yeah, those medievals had the right idea (I hate this idea, but it’s the student’s right). Honestly, I can’t get too worked up about political influence over students – because I don’t think I *have* that much influence over the students. They come to my classes with lots of opinions about lots of subjects, and I am really a very small part of what goes into their political ideas. I think students are pretty good at knowing when someone’s trying to convert them, and are pretty resistant. Students who are likely to be “influenced” by my politics are those who are likely to agree with them already, and those who come in as conservatives aren’t going to magically change their spots because of what I say. Which doesn’t mean I treat the classroom as a bully pulpit for my political views – it’s just that when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, I don’t think they’re so much political views as intellectual views. Sorry, this has got long and I still don’t seem to be able to make the point I want to!

  14. 22 July, 2006 11:32 pm

    Well, I think we do agree on lots of things — I would definitely agree on your example about women. I just think you’re generally more articulate than I am! And although we disagree on a lot about World History, the reason I chose the text I am using this time is because it seems to have a really good balance of individual development of cultures and the interconnectivity between them — and it’s really good about pointing out thematic things that look the same, but aren’t necessarily connected and might be lumped into the “maybe it’s part of the human condition?” category. But what I do like is that the organization really is both chronological, and geographical, so you don’t see the same clustering of cultures that weren’t connected, just because the chronology fits. So Celts and Phoenecians together! And honestly, I’m less worried about influencing students (I think you’re absolutely right about how little impact we have in terms of political agendas) than I am worried about appearing as though I have an axe to grind. But that’s one of the reasons I try very hard to teach without that axe.

  15. 23 July, 2006 1:45 am

    I think New Kid clarified my point about world history better than I could, and emphasized the point I forgot to make that it was just a generic example–in any field we have to make choices about what to study and those choices are not objective, and that does not mean they are bad history.ADM said: “If the ‘why’ drives the ‘what’ and ‘how’, you have given up even the pretense of trying to achieve objectivity.” No, my point is that of course the ‘why’ drives the ‘what’, for all fields, but that there is no intrinsic connection between the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ The conflation of ‘what’ and ‘how’ is basically the problem I have with the original post. I am interested in certain places, times, and questions, for thoroughly personal reasons. That’s the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ But it ends there–it does not affect ‘how’ I read documents, write, or publicize my results. Your original post doesn’t seem to recognize that possibility–yet I think it is the case for the majority of historians.All historians have pet theories that they would like to see proved–most of us give them up unless the evidence supports them. This post seems to assume that the mere existence of such pet theories will result in a distorted reading of documents, and I think that’s simply not true. In the context of the referenced posts, this one seems to be implying that historians of race/gender/identity/etc are peculiarly prone to not giving up such pet theories.

  16. 23 July, 2006 1:55 am

    No, what I’m saying is that not recognizing those things and consciously trying to avoid their influence, because we know there’s a chance of our readings being distorted, can result in bad history. So we’re obliged to make the effort. And I think that, if you consider yourself as being particularly able to understand a group, because you self-identify with that group — and especially if you go in with the idea of righting the wrongs done to that group, you’re screwed in terms of doing a good job as an historian. You might do a great job as a journalist, or maker of documentaries, or whatever, but if you’re consciously going in to the study of history with an idea that your understanding of your subject is somehow better, and your interpretation somehow bears some moral weight, I cannot see how you can be doing history well. (by ‘you’, obviously, I mean ‘one’).

  17. 23 July, 2006 3:18 am

    ADM, I love your last comment here — I agree with you that it’s disastrous for history when you approach it on those terms and so many do. When I hear a student say “Well, I understand X in the past because Y happened to me, too” I want them to step back and think about how these might not be so aligned as they imagine.

  18. 23 July, 2006 4:32 am

    ADM said: “if you consider yourself as being particularly able to understand a group, because you self-identify with that group…you’re screwed in terms of doing a good job as an historian.”Okay, I’m fine with that. It seems to be a clearer articulation of what you were getting at in the last para of the post?ADM said: “– and especially if you go in with the idea of righting the wrongs done to that group” Still disagreeing with this part–great work has been done by historians recovering the lost stories of people (e.g. slaves, women, poor) ignored by previous history. Certainly, it might contribute to bad history, but it might well not. I think this is much less of a red flag than the “I understand those people because that’s who I am” approach.

  19. 23 July, 2006 1:06 pm

    Dee – recovering lost stories isn’t what I’m talking about. We all do that. But recovering those stories in order to have a direct and immediate effect (undoing wrongs) on the same group in the present? The one that you identify with? That’s different. Yes, the recovery of lost stories might in the long run help to undo wrongs against women (see NK’s comments above) — or at least make people think more about the place of women in society. But, isn’t that true of any subject … that the more we know about it, the more it becomes included in our worldview? But if it were women’s history that didn’t talk about social and intellectual contexts of the time, in order to show how screwed up things may have been for women in the past, because you want people to read it and say, “that’s effed up, we should make sure we don’t do that anymore.” Well, that’s bad history. And my experience is that, even when it’s good history, students (and therefore, people) will look at it and weigh it and relate it to their own situations.I mean, when I teach Athens and Sparta, as one does, we all read a good bit on the women as well. And initially, the students think life is much better for Spartan women than for Athenian women. Property rights! Freedom of movement! Jobs! Ability to interact with men!And then they read a bit more … that Spartan wedding ceremony is a kicker. And the implications of emphasis on healthy bodies for breeding for the state? And then we’re at a point where they can start to contextualize these women’s experiences, and they are always going to compare them with their own. And with any luck, they are going to think about gender issues when they run into them in their own lives, whether it’s living in a very small town where women don’t go out alone (why??) or whether it’s listening to a report on honor killings in a western country.

  20. 23 July, 2006 3:28 pm

    I agree with Dee that there’s a difference between the identity politics – “I understand this group because I am one” – and studying a group to right wrongs done to that group (because, certainly, those things don’t have to go together – lots of folks study slavery/oppressed groups without being part of those groups at all). Like Dee, I think that it *can* contribute to bad history, but it doesn’t *have* to. But if it were women’s history that didn’t talk about social and intellectual contexts of the time, in order to show how screwed up things may have been for women in the past, because you want people to read it and say, “that’s effed up, we should make sure we don’t do that anymore.” Well, that’s bad history.I guess my reaction to this is: this isn’t the only way to teach history in order to right the wrongs of the present, if that makes any sense. I would agree that the above is bad history, but I don’t think it’s bad because it wants to right present wrongs – it’s just bad history, period. I think people can do history well with the hope/intent of changing things – and they can do history badly for lots of reasons, too. I think anytime you do history to show a specific, predetermined conclusion, it’s bad history. I just don’t think that having the goal of improving the present means that you’re necessarily doing history to show a specific, predetermined conclusion. Obviously, it *can* mean that, but I don’t think it has to. The *purpose* doesn’t have to be the same as the *conclusion* you’re presenting. Again, the example you give about Sparta/Athens is great, and I don’t think we’re disagreeing about how to do things, just what one would call the things we’re doing.

  21. 23 July, 2006 5:18 pm

    I really wanted to let New Kid’s nice exit line stand–but oh well. :)I don’t think we are disagreeing about how to do things either. I’m just disagreeing with the categorical statement that entering with a certain type of agenda is bound to result in bad history.However, I don’t see a great gulf between the “that’s effed up, we should make sure we don’t do that anymore” reaction, and what ADM rightly posits as the desired reaction of “here they can start to contextualize these women’s experiences, and they are always going to compare them with their own. And with any luck, they are going to think about gender issues when they run into them in their own lives.” Yeah, the second has a more sophisticated understanding of what “that” is. But I think it’s entirely possible, and probable, that many students independently travel through reaction #2 to arrive at reaction #1, and that professors aiming for the first reaction get there by giving their students the same sophisticated understanding of “that.”Side note–this past year I taught Judith Carney’s Black Rice, and It occurs to me as an example of work clearly and self-consciously done with an agenda, but nonetheless excellent history. I believe the word “polemical” came up in the class discussion. So we talked about whether we could trust it, and to what degree the absences in the book affected the argument (African agency in building the colonial South Carolina rice economy), and concluded that it was marginal.

  22. 23 July, 2006 6:08 pm

    Dee, I think part of the problem here is that you are misreading my use of the word agenda to include “the important question the historian thinks needs to be answered” and/or “the issue the historian thinks has been neglected.” What I’m talking about is the desire to produce a particular POV in the audience that is in line with a particular political (and the initial conversation that started all of this revolved around what can only be a kind of politicization of identity) viewpoint on the part of the author.I mean, you could argue that any thesis was an agenda. In that sense, we all have them. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

  23. 23 July, 2006 6:34 pm

    Hey everyone. Sorry I haven’t been the most active participant in this discussion, even though I may have begun it. July has been quite the roller coaster ride and blogging has suffered for it. Anyway, I plan on posting some thoughts over at my place soon. In the meantime, can I recommend two books, each with their own set of problems I admit, that I think largely succeed first at doing fine history and second at making a good political point that’s relevant today (and I mean it in that order, as it should be). The first is Martin Summers’s Manliness and Its Discontents on Black masculinity in early twentieth century America and the second is Marc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves on gay and lesbian post-WWII Philadelphia. As ADM infered, I haven’t read too many pre-modern works, so I can’t come up with any definitive (and good) examples of what I want to do myself. David Bell’s The Cult of the Nation in France comes to mind, although that may be accidental after the events of last year in France. So does Suzanne Desan’s The Family on Trial In Revolutionary France one of the best history books, I have ever read.

  24. 23 July, 2006 10:10 pm

    ADM, re the use of “agenda”–No, my point is that you seem to be drawing a strict line between things that are divided only by degree, and sometimes not at all. The questions the historian thinks are important or neglected are equally reflective of a political viewpoint, and often attempt to produce a particular viewpoint in the reader. There are many, many different ways historians can manifest a “desire to produce a particular POV in the audience that is in line with a particular political…viewpoint.” Some of those ways will produce good history, and some may produce bad history.Anyhow, I’m starting to repeat myself, and that always means it’s time to let a conversation go. I’ll just return to New Kid’s statement: “I think people can do history well with the hope/intent of changing things – and they can do history badly for lots of reasons, too.”

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