Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Details--Vermin As History

[gary daily col. 20 June 9, 2002]

“Nothing capable of being memorized is history.”
-R. G. Collingwood

It’s a broad generalization, but a fair one: readers of history have a strong tendency to trust historians on details while holding interpretive analyses of the past at arms length. This tendency is in line with the national game of trivial pursuit called “surfing the net.” There is a passion for quick and easy factual information and a rushed avoidance of nuanced comprehension.

This schizoid-like reading and non-reading of history (defining history as a written account of the past) is probably due to how history is most often used by people today. There is much solemn nonsense stated in the public sphere about “history repeating itself” and “learning the lessons of the past,” but let’s pass along the word that rather than “searching for a usable past” the most common “use” of history is to settle something akin to bar bets. The variations this takes can’t be counted, but the form is recognizable to all.

“Do you know the name of Alexander the Great’s horse?”

“Traveller.”

“No, that was Robert E. Lee’s. I think Alexander’s was Bucephalus.”

“No. You’re putting me on.”

“Yeah, it was. Bucephalus.”

“Look it up.”

At this point the thickest unread book on the shelf is taken down and the index scanned. Or, in an increasingly likely scenario, this “historical discussion” is ended by putting trust in the pixilated pedantry of Jeeves, as in “Ask Jeeves,” the online search engine.

Historians, it needs to be repeated, do not comb musty documents to settle arguments and thrill antiquarians. The facts they mine in archives are witnesses they cross-examine. They attempt to better understand the past by using their evidence to answer the questions they pose about the people and events of the past. It is the rare historian who would hold that the facts speak for themselves.

People I talk to tell me: “I just couldn’t get into history in school. All those names, dates, and events. But I love history, now.”

I take this as a sincere and honest statement, regardless of the tone in which it is offered.

But it’s discouraging that general readers of history, and travelers to historical museums and sites, and even (some? most?) historical re-enactors “love” history in their maturity for the same reasons they found it intolerable in their youth. They now revel in the bountiful abundance of those self-same names, dates, and events. Significantly, many put their money where their “love” is and purchase the artifacts of the past--spoons to spittoons, bullets and belt buckles. Intolerable and boring details at fourteen are miraculously transformed into fascinating fare and sacred objects at forty.

My unease with all of this love and worship of historical detail is related to the public’s general indifference about putting these beguiling facts into wider, meaningful contexts. There seems little desire or curiosity to ask significant questions about the past. In other words, to think and act like historians. And, with few exceptions, professional historians have little interest and few incentives to change any of this.

In 1938, Alan Nevins, an enormously popular and respected historian of the day, called upon the American Historical Association to “revitalize” the profession by bringing the meaning and importance of history to general audiences. Today, some 75 years after Nevins’s appeal and fully 100 plus years into the professionalization of the craft, historians find themselves tightly tethered to universities where they must scramble to meet inflexible and formulaic requirements for tenure, promotion, research-based sabbaticals, and the crumbs of “performance” bonuses. With a reward system such as this, is it surprising that historians choose to write for each other, speaking to ever narrowing and specialized audiences?

On one level, the work of historians of the past generation has been outstanding by any measurement. But it is still fair to ask the university establishment, where are the books, articles, and contributions in the media which recognize and build on the public’s real but self-limiting interest in history? Relatively little that comes out of academia is concerned with bridging the gulf between the general reader and historical scholarship. Are the two irretrievably divided?

With Voltaire it’s easy to moan: “Woe to details! Posterity neglects them all; they are a kind of vermin that undermines large works.” But it’s significant how Voltaire got it wrong. It seems that for a swath of posterity, in the wide reading public and among narrow historical scholars, the details are embraced and the larger work of history neglected.

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