Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 08/26/06
History is not simply an art, nor simply a science,” wrote Jean-Jules Jusserand in “The Historian’s Work”; “it participates in the nature of both.” The academicians who govern the current historical establishment seem to have forgotten Jusserand’s dictum. With pseudoscientific zeal, they have promulgated a history dominated by a narrow field of experts, created a disconnect between historical inquiry and popular memory, and excised informed opinion about current events from the purview of historical analysis.
The disastrous results of such a policy are obvious. To many Americans today, history has become the study of obscurity, the prerogative of trained scholars, the prisoner of an enforced neutrality. History has been pigeonholed, overprofessionalized, and defanged as an agent of social change. Historians have never commanded so little respect as they do now; likewise, history as a discipline has never seemed so remote, so otherworldly.
All of us who are involved in online political activism are here to speak truth to power; many of us came to the blogosphere through the Dean campaign, an organic popular movement that encouraged us to “take our country back.” While we at ProgressiveHistorians view our country through the specific lens of history, our goal remains the same: to take back our discipline, and by extension our country, by expanding it — by opening it to those not formally trained in historical scholarship, and by encouraging its practitioners to view engagement with today’s political climate as a necessary and welcome addition to historical analysis.
At ProgressiveHistorians, we hope that all academic disciplines will eventually have their own online homes for open and lively debate. Still, it is fitting that history be the first to receive such recognition. Both the etymology and the study of history have their roots in story, and storytelling is as old as humanity itself. In prehistoric times, a tribe’s oral historian was often its shaman, an individual revered for his knowledge and wisdom. In ancient times, historians were internationally-renowned authorities (Herodotus), respected aristocrats (Thucydides), and companions of heads of state (Polybius). During the Middle Ages, monks with historical training, such as the priest charged with determining the true birth year of Christ (Dionysius Exiguus), were among the most highly-regarded spiritual figures in Europe. The Enlightenment saw historians revered in intellectual circles (Edward Gibbon) and entrusted scholar-historians with leading roles in a political revolution (Voltaire, Denis Diderot). The Chinese civil service system valued historian-scholars above all others and offered them positions as commander-in-chief (Zuo Zontang, Zeng Guofan) and Prime Minister (Li Hongzhang). In the twentieth century, three historians — two amateur (Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy) and one professional (Woodrow Wilson) — were elected President of the United States.
Throughout the human experience, then, history has been recognized as a discipline with special applications to everyday life, and as a study with particular relevance to politics. Good government requires a knowledge of old government. Good citizenship requires an understanding of people, which can be gleaned from a rendering of how they have acted. A government cannot tell the truth about the present unless it understands what truth is — and history is the study of truth, of many truths for many people, of narratives woven through human souls. Thus the historian’s natural role in the body politic is to focus the past like a beacon on the present, to arouse communal memory, and to mine her expertise for lessons relevant to contemporary life and governance.
At its best, history is high, enlightened, a paean to the better gods of human nature; at its worst, however, it is institutional pablum, the product of an academic elitism so insular as to be wholly divorced from reality. (See Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History for an extreme instance of an academic caught up in his own words in utter disregard of the ludicrousness of their meaning.) Those plastic “presidential historians” whose faces adorn the television news — Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, and the rest — are particularly egregious examples of a history bound to banalities out of fear of unpopularity. After the 2004 election, TIME Magazine hosted a roundtable of six such historians and asked them for their educated impressions of George Bush’s presidency and of the recent vote. The sum total of “intelligent” analysis from the six scholars — aside from Goodwin’s shameless plug for her upcoming book — was David Kennedy’s improbable claim that, because of the election results, the Religious Right should now be considered a mainstream political force.
It was in a moment of bewildered outrage, after reading the article and discovering the vapidity of thought among these “leaders” in my chosen profession, that the idea for ProgressiveHistorians was born. If the professionals are not utilizing their considerable talents to explicate our political and cultural realities, then the rest of us should do it for them. Let the people speak; let the voiceless be heard. Let every American have a forum in which to try to fashion from the indistinct clay of past experience a shining structure for the future.
For the history of America cannot be written without its people. It is no accident that the shelves of popular bookstores are filled with historical volumes penned by non-academically-trained writers, while there is nary a professional historian to be found there. This is not to say, of course, that trained historians are not of value; in fact, many of us, myself included, are in training to join their ranks. But to assign the telling of history as the sole prerogative of people whose names begin with “Doctor” is to separate America’s past from those who need it most — the people who are living it in the present. Each of us, trained or not, should have the ability to analyze and consider our history, and to be taken seriously in the attempt. At ProgressiveHistorians, we hope to provide them that opportunity.
America needs a new kind of history — one bold, open, and critically engaged with the present day. A history that is open to all who seek to learn about themselves and to dialogue about their insights with others. A history that never forgets that the purpose of the past is to inform the present so the future can be brighter. The mission of ProgressiveHistorians is to aid in fostering that history. With any luck, what we say and do here will have an impact on the American historical profession as well as on our collective understanding of our past, and will pave the way for a better, more enlightened tomorrow.