18 May, 2009Issue 9.4HistoryNorth America

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Abusing Historians

Joshua Matz

beautyMargaret MacMillan
The Uses and Abuses of History
Profile Books, 2009
194 pages
ISBN 978-1846682049

Historical narratives are duplicitous. Behind the mask of apparent “truth”, our accounts of the past conceal subtle value judgments, beliefs about human decision-making and implicit claims about national and group identity. Marxists reveal the determinacy of class structures, intellectual historians show a world transformed by ideas, and social historians strive to show that race, gender, and sexuality are not fixed categories. Whether one realizes it or not, every historical account is an argument about how we see our world.

As Margaret MacMillan demonstrates in The Uses and Abuses of History, the power of historical narrative is often employed for nefarious ends. Initially inspired by George W. Bush’s manifest ignorance of the Iraqi past, MacMillan moves beyond a mere attack on American stupidity (terrain covered by Al Gore and Susan Jacoby) to an international assault on the misuse of history. Trotting the globe in 194 pages, she indicts political leaders, media elites, and popular opinion at the bar of historical judgment. MacMillan also critiques the public’s willingness to accept flawed historical accounts, especially where they carry overdetermined “lessons” for the future.

Building from these concerns, MacMillan argues that knowledge of the past “in all its richness and complexity” can do extraordinary good. Where one-sided, moralistic, and factually inaccurate histories entail a Pandora’s Box of harms (jingoism, ethnic conflict, and human rights abuses top the list), textured histories can equip a citizenry to challenge facile generalizations, resist totalizing ideologies, and comprehend current events. Inconvenient to autocrats and ideologues, a proper understanding of history encourages humility, respect for differences, and wariness about simple “lessons”.

For MacMillan, the ministers of this remedy will not be non-academic amateurs, but professionally trained scholars. This faith in the academy motivates a scathing critique of cultural history: MacMillan asserts that professors—who should be concerned with changing public discourse—have a self-indulgent preoccupation with “imagining”, “constructing”, and “contesting”. In short, cultural historians have forgotten that their “training is worth something”. This “fascination with ourselves”, she said at a recent conference, has the “dangerous tendency” of divorcing historians from the public that pays their salaries. Accordingly, the time has come for historians to do something about the abuse of their special domain.

While MacMillan’s account of the misuses of history overflows with fascinating examples, this diagnosis unduly blames academics for the status quo and unimaginatively suggests that only professionals can rescue the world’s politics and people.

Amateurs are not the agents of ignorance that Macmillan presents them to be. Works authored by non-professors have sold well in Western publics for a long time, frequently landing atop best-sellers lists. There are also good reasons to take non-professionals’ impact on public discourse seriously. Taylor Branch’s definitive history of the American Civil Rights Movement, Robert Caro’s meticulously researched biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and A.N. Wilson’s acclaimed Victorians suggest that one need not occupy a chaired professorship to write phenomenal history. As Tom Holland noted in The Observer, it seems far-fetched to insist that “history is so potentially lethal in its effects that only academic specialists can be trusted to handle it.”

Moreover, the success of books by professional historians Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Simon Schama belies MacMillan’s image of a disengaged, battle-weary profession. These accusations are not new. In the late 19th century, the establishment of a formal historical discipline pitted newly minted professionals against popularizers, historical societies, and literary gentlemen in a contest for intellectual authority. Professors successfully carved out a niche for themselves, but their capacity to control and elevate historical consciousness remained in question. In 1884, the president of the American Historical Association worried that “never was this want of broad historical views in leaders of American opinion more keenly felt than now.” Angst about “relevance” has an equally long life, flaring up periodically as part of historians’ disciplinary self-consciousness.

MacMillan is right that historians receive less public deference than their colleagues in the natural sciences. As recent controversies over Japanese, Chinese, and American history textbooks illustrate, she’s also right that many governments prefer impoverished, nationalist histories aimed at sculpting good citizens to critical accounts of the past. Here, MacMillan has pinpointed a serious problem. But her diagnosis of the cause, the abdication of professional responsibility, misses the point. Ultimately, the abuses she explores spring from moreand more complexsources than a “linguistic turn” amongst professionals. Rather, we must look to the institutions and individuals schools, political and religious leaders, family members, the media, and popular literaturethat more significantly shape critical and factual understanding of the past.

In the end, MacMillan’s critique is more interesting for the questions it raises than the answers it provides. Perhaps most importantly, The Uses and Abuses of History pushes us to explore the extent to which professional historians are obligated to act in the public domain. Of course, a professional historian’s influence on public discourse is limitedit is hard to imagine massed ranks of historians marching forth in academic regalia, bearing primary sources for shot and shell, to battle misstatements by Chinese, Turkish, and American leaders about Tibetans, Armenians, and Native Americans. Heads of state are not students, subject to examination viva voce, and victims of history do not attain absolution in ivy-encrusted lecture halls.

Beyond these limitations, there remains a complicated question about whether academics have a professional duty to change public beliefs. It is fine, perhaps even commendable, for historians to act as public intellectuals and speak truth to power. But this may be a step beyond the limits of their professional calling. After all, historians are scholars, not politicians. It is not cowardice for them to focus on research and pedagogy, which have a subtler but no less important potential for social change.

What MacMillan really wants is a smarter, nuanced, and better-informed public. Books like hers are one step in that direction, but a proper solution requires that we ask how families, leaders, and culture shape our understanding of history. Dismissing amateurs is not only implausible; it is also unfair to the many people who turn to history with questions outside the traditional scope of the academy.

Ultimately, MacMillan would be well served to remember that the real, extraordinary, and surprisingly quotidian power of professional historians is concentrated most forcefully in the classroom. There, while shaping the present and imagining the future, historians and their students most fully explorein all its magnificent diversity and humbling complexitythe past that belongs to us all.

Joshua Matz is reading for an MSt in American Studies at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is an associate history editor of the Oxonian Review.