Gordon Wood, the Politics of History and the History Classroom
Today during our weekly history department meeting we considered a questionnaire submitted by one of our students inquiring into our political beliefs and how our politics shapes both how we teach history and how we interpret the past. It’s incredibly encouraging to see a student take an interest in his education and express curiosity as to how his teachers think about his/her respective subject. On the other hand, the questions reflected a view of history education that has become all too common and that is that historical understanding is little more than an expression of personal politics. I almost feel as if we failed as a department to properly convey just what is involved in thinking historically.
It is impossible to deny that our understanding of the past is influenced by our personal backgrounds and that includes our political views. But historical thinking involves much more than this. My history classroom isn’t a laboratory for competing political views. I ask my students to think like historians, which includes learning how to frame questions and how to go about searching for answers in the primary sources. It involves interpreting the evidence they uncover and trying as best they can to come to some conclusions. Those conclusions are then challenged and revised based on new questions, new ideas and new evidence. History is a process. I could inquire into how their personal backgrounds are influencing their reading of the sources, but I am not interested. My job is to assist them in working through the historical process. Right now my students are interpreting a collection of primary sources and thinking about whose vision of Reconstruction prevailed and why.
Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history….
But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.
Wood spends a great deal of time generalizing about what he believes motivates historians. No doubt, I’ve read some of the scholarship that Wood has in mind, but not once did I inquire into the politics or personal motivation of the authors. I honestly don’t care because I don’t judge a work of history based on such narrow and ultimately irrelevant considerations. I am interested in how well the historian in question applies certain skills. What matters is the strength of the argument. Ultimately, I want to learn something new and this involves reading as wide a range of history books as possible. Why must we take a narrow view of the past? Why must we ask only certain questions and not others? Who gets to decide?
When I read The Radicalism of the American Revolution in Ronald Hoffman’s historiography seminar at the University of Maryland I was taught to critique the argument. I never found myself worrying about Gordon Wood’s politics or his personal motivation for writing Radicalism. It never crossed my mind, so why does Wood believe he is in a position to evaluate and ultimately dismiss the work of others in such a way? What is truly disappointing about this essay is that Wood offers not a single example of the scholarship that he finds so objectionable. Not one. He reduces the historical profession and the teaching of history to merely a reflection of personal politics and motivations that may or may not be true. If one of my students handed in such an essay I would give it a big fat F.
Though it falls beyond the scope of this short post, I find it hard to believe that Bernard Bailyn views recent historiography along the same lines as Wood.
Ultimately, Wood makes it more difficult for history teachers such as myself to defend our discipline. If one of our most esteemed historians can do little more than make accusations about the state of historical scholarship without providing a single example than there is little hope. Wood’s critique of the profession reinforces and encourages the worst elements in our growing anti-intellectual culture.