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.

This student’s questions point to the extent to which the teaching of history and historical scholarship have become politicized. We see it in the ongoing controversy surrounding the curricular changes to the AP US History course and even in the recent review essay of Bernard Bailyn’s new book by Gordon Wood, published in The Weekly Standard.

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.

19 comments… add one
  • Hugh Lawson Feb 28, 2015 @ 16:42

    I admire the view of E.D. Hirsh, Jr., which goes something like this. The problems taken up for study may properly reflect the existential concerns of the student. There is for example, no rule to stop a Catholic scholar deciding to study the reformation, with an Jew deciding to study antisemitism–with these examples any clever person can expand the list. But after the student takes up the problem, then s/he must honor ideals of impartiality and objectivity.

    I can’t recall in just which one of his books (I’ve read several of them) I picked up Hirsch’s idea on this point, but I’m happy to record my indebtedness to his formulation.

    So we have two different aspects to the problem: deciding to study a question–here existential concerns ( who we are, where we come from, religion, politics, ethnicity, etc. ) may affect what problems we study–and there can be no reproach. But, the problem once selected, should be studied with respect to principles of objectivity and impartiality.

  • Michael C Williams Feb 24, 2015 @ 12:53

    In studying history one’s personal backgrounds and political leanings shouldn’t get in the way.

    Or at least that’s what I do when learning from primary sources.

    I try to put myself in the shoes of the people that lived through our little war.

    Historians should do more of this.

  • Curmudgeon (aka) Mudgie. Feb 24, 2015 @ 9:32

    I am new to Mr. Levin’s Civil War Memories blog and hope to be a frequent reader and occaisonal commenter on his offerings.

    I understand’s Mr. Levin’s concern about the request for a discussion of an historian’s political views, and highly endorse the concept of dealing with the historian’s argument based on its merits.

    But I am reluctant to endorse the view that an historian’s political preferences are irrelevant both to the argument being presented and to very subject matter with which the historian chooses to deal. The political leanings of an author, historian or otherwise, frequently influences what it is that he is writing and, more importantly, how he goes about writing it.

    If I am a liberal, I tend to be more predisposed to see the oppression as a subject and to see oppression in terms of the oppressed being “victims”, often to the point of failing to see the the passivity of the oppressed as being contibutory to the very oppression that they are enduring.

    If I am a conservative, I tend to be more predisposed to see symbiotic nature of oppressor/oppressed in ways that are beneficial to both.

    While using today’s view of “compassion” and “responsibility” it is impossible to see what of the American South from the beginning of our nation to the mid-1850’s or early 1860’s as anything but an anathema. But is it proper for the understanding of the history of that period without accepting their views of those human traits, at least in a reasonable analyses of the why and the how the Civil War came to pass?

    Does not the political view of the historian influence how he approaches that? And isn’t it useful for the reader of history texts to understand the view point of the author of those writings?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2015 @ 9:44

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. I want to reiterate that I am not denying that how we approach the past can be influenced by our political views. That said, I believe that how we interpret the past is shaped by a wide range of factors that extend beyond the world of politics. This fact ought to be understood as a starting point, but how we evaluate a work of history does not begin and end with those background conditions. An analytical work of history (which is what Wood was referencing) cannot simply be understood as a reflection of such factors.

      I am unaware of the personal backgrounds of the vast majority of historians that I read. I can guess as to their political views, but their particular biases may be a function of other factors. One of the problems I have is that we tend to draw too sharp a line between liberal and conservative. It’s not particularly helpful to me in this context. Whatever the case may be I can only judge a monograph or journal article based on the formal argument presented and how it stacks up against interpretations on the same or similar subject.

      I believe that professional historians and teachers have not done a very good job of explaining to the general public just what is involved in teaching and doing serious history. All Gordon Wood managed to accomplish, in my view, was reinforce how a certain segment of the public views historians. He did nothing to illuminate what is involved in doing history.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • The Historianess (@historianess) Feb 24, 2015 @ 6:07

    If Wood has read more recent stuff, he hasn’t engaged with it with an open mind, which is disappointing to say the least. This is the list of the summer seminars Bailyn organized: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~atlantic/Seminar-%20General/seminarlist.html

    I remember the 2004 one pretty well–and Bailyn kept saying, I’m so glad you all are teaching me about New Indian History. Bailyn respects new work in a way that Wood apparently cannot. It’s such a shame.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2015 @ 6:13

      I just love some of these paper titles from the 2010 seminar:

      Persistence of Indigenous Peoples and Struggles for Land Rights. Cordoba Between the Bourbons and the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata
      “In whose possession they are now:” Black Loyalists and Their Quest for Freedom in the Bahamas
      Regulating Slavery: Custom and Statutory Law in South Carolina, 1670-1748

      Perhaps Wood will write a critique of all the bad history that his mentor has helped to encourage.

      • The Historianess (@historianess) Feb 24, 2015 @ 16:25

        🙂 This is why I read Wood’s piece as a veiled swipe at his old mentor. The off-hand comment about how Atlantic history is destroying the narrative says to me that Wood does not really like Bailyn’s intellectual project from about aged 70 on.

  • The Historianess (@historianess) Feb 24, 2015 @ 4:22

    Just a quick reply: I can guarantee that Bailyn does not think about the historiography as Wood does. The Barbarous Years was Bailyn’s attempt to wrestle with this new work, much of which was published fifty years after he was trained. That’s pretty remarkable. I hope to be as active a reader and writer when I’m in my late eighties.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2015 @ 4:30

      And I don’t get the sense from Wood that he has read much over the past two decades, which is disappointing. It leaves me to wonder just how many students Bailyn pushed into the field of ‘Atlantic World’ history that Wood now derides.

  • Phil LeDuc Feb 23, 2015 @ 23:58

    Regarding the student’s questionnaire, I’m reminded of Gary Gallagher’s remarks (beginning at about 13:15) when accepting the Merrill Award two years ago. He finds it encouraging that at the end of the semester students still don’t know if he’s a Democrat or a Republican, and if they ask him if he’ll finally tell them, he says “no”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRH9hmg6n0c )

  • msb Feb 23, 2015 @ 23:54

    One of the things I like about scholarship since I left formal education is the recognition that everybody has an ax to grind. In my schooldays, the almost exclusively white and male faculty of my college (like the exclusively white and female faculty of my high school) officially espoused a “neutral” or “universal” approach; what that approach did not consider was therefore not “important”. Attacking this approach has been very fruitful, in my view.
    The real scholar, however, has not only a consciousness of his/her own interests and biases but also the method to determine the facts and the honesty to both base his/her conclusions on them and recognize where they challenge or demolish his/her preconceptions. A challenging task but very worth while.
    I’m also interested in Wood’s mentioning a professional bias against narrative history, as James McPherson has mentioned it in his critiques of the profession. I wouldn’t know from personal experience, but would like to hear more about this from professionals.

  • TF Smith Feb 23, 2015 @ 21:32

    If one of my young people did a book review that spent one page on the work being reviewed and two pages on “countering” nameless critics of the author of the book being reviewed, I’d suggest they missed the point of the assignment.

    Bailyn and Wood are hardly unknown scholars, and their works are accepted as foundational in their fields. Cripes, Random Directional State U. (on the Pacific) has an endowed chair of Atlantic History, which I rarely if ever need to explain to the youngsters is because of the very foundational element of the Atlantic to American and US history. They pretty much get that … what they don’t get is why ee don’t have one for either Pacific or Latin American history, but those are fights we continue to, um, fight…one can hope.

    Cripes, we even continue to offer both Western Civ and World History (and a Classics program!), somehow breaking the paradigms of academic-lib-commie-sympdom-as-perceived-by-the-RW… at the moment, due to a pending retirement, we are going to have a 20th C. US and Cold War position opening up, and I’m currrently trying to recruit an academy graduate/20-year-career/O-6 who went back and earned a Phd for the job.

    Amazingly enough, even in our far from R1 corner of the boondocks, we value scholarship and perspective.

    I don’t know where these RW memes come from (well, I do, but even the boomers will all retire at some point, and we can get past “the ’60s” (TM)

  • M.D. Blough Feb 23, 2015 @ 20:33

    In addition to your post and what Pat Young and Andrew Raker said in their comments, one thing I found very disturbing, especially from a professor and scholar of Prof. Wood’s stature, in his review is the large number of what give the appearance of being unattributed quotations from other historians. If the issue is context, how can one evaluate alleged criticism of Bailyn when the alleged criticism itself is deprived of any context?

    Then there is the line after the one that Andrew Raker quotes, when Wood goes on to say, ” 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.” “The pastness of the past”? Seriously? (Has Professor Wood read William Faulkner?) I think the idea that one can only find moral objections through hindsight to many of these previously ignored or marginalized subjects is quite simply unsupportable. The debate over slavery in the Constitutional Convention was very heated and while many of the Founding Fathers/Framers were slave owners, others openly held anti-slavery views that were based on a belief that slavery was a wrongful deprivation of basic human rights.

  • Bryce Hartranft Feb 23, 2015 @ 20:25

    General narratives are boring and serve as a platform for lofty assertions that get in the way of the facts. Specific, topical books are far more interesting because they just lay out the details with reasonable interpretation and allow the reader to come to their own conclusions. While they are fragmentary, by necessity due to their depth, anyone that has taken a us history survey course can place the info within the proper historical context.

    I don’t need someone else’s narrative. I need someone else’s research to save me time so I can construct my own, more meaninful narrative.

  • Pat Young Feb 23, 2015 @ 16:27

    My problem with Wood’s article goes a bit beyond Kevin’s post.

    Wood makes it sound as though Bailyn has been thrown to the curb by the young folks. In fact, Bailyn received the National Humanities Award while in his late 80s from President Obama just four years ago. He is still able to get his work published by major presses. His Peopling of British North America is incredibly important work. Why would Wood diminish Bailyn’s reputation in order to portray historians who write about women and non-white people as Bailyn’s oppressors?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2015 @ 16:29

      My guess is that plenty of the people that Wood gives the back of his hand to still teach Bailyn and wait for it… Wood.

      • Andrew Raker Feb 23, 2015 @ 17:14

        Yes, I’m not sure what Wood would think about my professor who invited him to speak in our seminar, whose dissertation was on the role of impressment in the Royal Navy, or the seminar itself, “British Atlantic World”.

        As to the topics Wood dismisses, I’m personally interested in them because they seem to be much more interesting, and also offer ground for new scholarship. It’s also hard to treat the past as the past on its own terms when one dismisses Indian history by saying they have to be fit “into a story in which, tragically, they become steadily marginalized and eventually overwhelmed.”

  • Rob Baker Feb 23, 2015 @ 16:16

    Kevin, great article.

    Completely off topic. Your photo in the “About Kevin Levin” mini bio at the bottom of the page; it looks like the “Ask me about my wiener” kid from the movie Accepted.


    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2015 @ 16:17

      Thanks, Rob.

      It’s good to know that I have other career options. 🙂

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