What’s the Use of History?

So asks John Pepall in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of the Dorchester Review. Not that he really thinks there’s any question. As he informs us on page one,

The use of history, the only use of history, is its being known and understood by the general public, those of us who are not historians, not producers of history, but consumers of it one might say.

That much established, he settles into a comfortable jeremiad against “university historians”. Taken individually, his complaints will sound familiar, in some cases quaint. Taken together, they tell a peculiar and somewhat contradictory story about what history is, or should be, what it has become, and how it is made.

Pepall’s first charge is that academic historians have stopped talking to the public — and that they look down on those historians who speak to it (specifically via narrative history). Second, however, academic history is “not fit for public consumption” anyway. Third, the problem began when history became a university subject and stopped being written for “the general reader”, as it was in the days of Hume and Gibbon. Fourth, the problem also began when university historians, “not… content to be little more than archivists” guarding the documents and “simply teaching the history that the great and the good historians [Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Lecky] had given us”, took it upon themselves to “make history new” — in particular by considering “historical issues and problems” of no interest to “us”. Aiding this usurpation of history, fifth and inevitably, was “theory” (what theory specifically means is left unsaid, except that it is “philosophical” and “postmodern”). Sixth, despite the moral relativism commonly (correctly?) ascribed to theory, theory-driven history amounts to so many moralizing “attacks” or “take-downs” or “indictments” of past great men, judged without attention to context by “the correct standards of the present.” Seventh — and for present purposes last — this precludes understanding of “how it really happened”, a phrase reused several times throughout the article (almost always — curiously — in scare quotes).

As a card-carrying university historian who does think academic research has something to say to the public, I’d like to say a little about some of Pepall’s various complaints before passing on to the more general question of how he seems to see history as a discipline, as an intellectual pursuit, and as a matter of public interest. Precisely because I agree with him that history is a vital piece of public property, I think his vision of how the public should engage with it is on its own terms perversely narrow, condescending to the public, and detrimental to understanding the past. Lest this seem like just the sort of academic snobbery Pepall prophylactically conjures at strategic points in his piece, I should point out that none of what I am about to say depends on my own academic credentials, though it certainly does reflect my experience researching and writing about history.

As I have noted here before, the charge that historians don’t talk to the public rests on a series of fallacies. The first is the simplest: it isn’t actually true. Perhaps the biggest academic name in nineteenth-century American history, Eric Foner, is also surely among the most publicly recognizable spokesmen for and teachers of the field; among scholars of early America, Jill Lepore is in a similar position. From my own field of early modern Europe, there’s Anthony Grafton; for the ancient world, Mary Beard; for China (though Pepall doesn’t care about China, as we’ll see) Jonathan Spence is both past president of the American Historical Association and author of a string of well researched and well written paperback histories for the likes of Knopf and Penguin. Unlike Pepall, who offers exactly no examples of academics hounded from the field by its purported hatred of narrative (and only one example of his detested theory-driven history; see below), I could go on. Not all academics write narrative histories; not all have the gifts, and not all have the interest. But the idea that no one wants to introduce broad audiences to the findings of academic research is palpably false.

A second mistake behind the charge, though, is what one might call the “supply-side” fallacy of historical engagement: that if people aren’t reading academics, it’s because academics aren’t producing the right kind of work. Pepall provides little evidence, statistical or anecdotal, for his claims, so it’s hard to know how best to evaluate them. One obvious problem is the assumption — typical of this genre of critique — that academics produce only one kind of work; hence the solitary 2015 Canadian Historical Review article Pepall singles out for mockery stands in not only for the entirety of its poor author’s career but for the full range and scope of academic history since the 1880s. (Publishable academic work the length of Pepall’s piece would have to provide more than one example to shore up such large claims, but I digress.) But again: most historians write in multiple genres: monographs, surveys, textbooks, articles, chapters, entries in reference works, book reviews, op-eds, blogs, etc. It’s not clear, nor is it ever stated, why one instance of one form makes a convincing representative of the profession, much less a useful stick with which to beat it. Nor is it clear how academic indifference to the public jibes with “the universities’ attempted monopoly of public discourse”, which Pepall also decries.

Setting that aside, Pepall might well wonder whether the lack of an audience for academics’ work that he glories in and the lack of historical knowledge among the general public that he bewails are in fact related. On his own account, of course, academic histories as they are, unconcerned with “how it really happened” can’t help with this; the implication is that if academics turned to writing the kind of narrative histories that non-academics write, this would change. But if this good work is being taken care of without them — if we already have all the history we need, thanks to Hume, Gibbon, Granatstein, et al., — why does the problem persist? And if drilling the nineteenth century’s greatest historiographical hits into young brains is the solution, how are professional historians supposed to help? Even taking the “occasional updates” Pepall generously allows into account, surely books on tape are more cost-efficient than the tenured Macaulay-parrots Pepall seems to envision. (How his proposal of a “think tank” would help is even harder to imagine; perhaps the Fraser Institute has some thoughts on it.)

All the more so if universities are what killed history written for the “general reader” in the first place. Which raises another question: just who is this general reader? Is he/she/it the same for us as for Hume or Gibbon? Pepall implies as much, but I wonder whether twentieth-century mass-market editions of the greats haven’t coloured his views just a little; Hume (History of England, six volumes), Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, six volumes); Macaulay (History of England, five volumes), and Lecky (History of England during the Eighteenth Century, eight volumes) wrote erudite and elegant but also hefty, intellectually demanding, and comparatively expensive tomes. Their “public” was assuredly not academic — but neither, particularly for the first three, whose working lives predated the era of mass democracy and mass education, was it “general” in the sense implied by twenty-first century comparisons.[1] There is something genuinely strange in decrying the inaccessibility of current historians (who are at the same time dismissed as too concerned with the hoi polloi and the socially excluded rather than with “great men”) while championing the literary favourites of the ancien régime as men of the people.[2]

Perhaps the most fundamental problem in Pepall’s piece, however — a problem his Enlightenment and Victorian heroes, who knew that their work existed in a continuum, would readily recognize — lies with the idea that Hume and friends have “given” us the history we need, and that any serious deviation from it is an intrusion of “theory”. For one thing, even the most superficial familiarity with Hume (better known to us, of course, as a philosopher than as an historian) or with Gibbon (whose Memoirs describe a painstaking education in the “theories” of his day) makes nonsense of this. Hume’s work in particular was shaped by assumptions about social development that lie at the root of what he himself described as a “Science of Man” — that is, a social science. Like his friend Adam Smith (who, besides laying out a stage-theory, or “conjectural history”, of development in Book III of The Wealth of Nations, elaborated another in his little-known but fascinating History of Astronomy), Hume consciously combined theory and history. It is not the use of theory in history that is new and distorting; it’s the idea that they are neatly separable, even opposed.

This is not to defend all uses of all theories in all histories, any more than finding technical terms useful implies surrendering to “academic jargonitis”, or asserting the value of narrative requires believing that all stories are equally good. Not all theories are compatible, which is part of what makes the detail-free dismissal of a monolithic enterprise called “theory” so obtuse. But, like politics and broken wind, theories are there whether you own up to them or not. Incessantly brandishing “how it really happened” as a kind of Off!-style repellent for academics, Pepall studiously neglects the crucial question: what is “it” that we are asking about? Without a set of framing assumptions about how the world is arranged and divided, about how people think and act, about what is interesting or relevant — in a word, a theory — there is no way to answer that question. Without a theory — however simplistic, derivative, unreflective, perhaps even just passively imbibed from education or example — there is no reason to focus on one question rather than another, one event or subject rather than another, one set of sources, or one way of interpreting them, rather than another. All those decisions get made, one way or another, in any history. The only questions are how carefully and consciously they are made, how compellingly they are justified, and what sorts of insights on the past they afford.

Moreover, since the history one gets depends on the question one asks, the idea that there is simply one history, updated only by the occurrence of new events, is nonsense. Curiously, Pepall admits as much in contrasting the different subjects that different people take up in their reading, and perhaps even more so in noting his own lack of interest in the histories of China and, with a rather different resonance, Kapuskasing. (Pepall’s lack of curiosity about histories he doesn’t already think he knows is striking, but he deigns to admit that “if I were from Kapuskasing, I should want to know more.” How the fissiparous set of histories this implies sits with his notion of one updatable narrative is left unresolved.) For it turns out that Pepall, too, has a theory, though — rather in the manner of the kinds of social scientists he deplores — he refers to it as “the order of things”:

We should know our history. But that raises, while it may answer, the question: “Who are we?” It is perhaps generally accepted that Canadians should know Canadian history. Though how much and what is contested, particularly as immigrants arrive. But Western history? Should we be as ignorant as I am of much of China’s history? Is that not a Eurocentric, even racist, wrong?

History ends with each of us and goes out and back from there. I can only guess at the history of Kapuskasing and do not intend to bull up on it. But if I were from Kapuskasing, I should want to know more.

As I am a Canadian I am a late product of Western civilisation, which goes back to the Near East of 5,000 years ago. Sumer is barely more than a name to me, but I know that some of what happened there is with me still, while what happened under the Xia dynasty in China, while it is with the Chinese still and is worth some of us knowing about, is too remote not just in time but in the order of things, to be something I should know about.

Legitimate history, the kind “we” need and that academic historians are failing to provide, runs very specifically along the lines of “our” present identity not as men or women or workers or believers or bearers of rights but as Canadians. But, much more specifically, as Canadians of a kind whose lines of affiliation do not cut across borders to the US or the UK or, for that matter, Haiti or China or Syria — to say nothing of pre-conquest North America — but run back through “Western” history much as it was imagined at the outset of professional history, to Sumer. “Relevant” and necessary history, in short, is a kind of white identity politics. As theories go, I’ll take Foucault.

To be continued… 


[1] Much less, of course, were their works counterpoised to academic research — notwithstanding Gibbon’s sensitivity to the “Academical criticism” his work elicited and its contrast with “public demand”; see his frequent references to academic consultation in Georges Bonnard (ed.), Edward Gibbon: Memoirs of My Life (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1966); quotations are at p.182.
[2] Pepall may be interested to learn that Lecky’s work on the history of rationalism provides an opening for at least one recent academic work aimed at an audience beyond the academy: Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (Verso, 2012). Macaulay, meanwhile, operates as Steve Pincus’s foil in his recent 1688: The First Modern Revolution (Yale, 2009).


4 thoughts on “What’s the Use of History?

  1. Pingback: What’s the Use of History? Part 2 | memorious

  2. Don’t you mean Lecky in your second footnote? It’s actually the rise of rationalism not the history of morals that they cite.


  3. Pingback: What’s the Use of History? A Postscript | memorious

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