Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Review of History's Babel: AKA The Collapse of A Historic Enterprise

History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940 by Robert B. Townsend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, xiii + 272 pp.; appendix; notes; index; paperback, $30.00.

Robert Townsend shows a love of both history and the American Historical Association in History’s Babel. Well versed, with over 20 years of experience in the organization, Townsend presents an institutional history of the AHA in an attempt to define the entirety of historical field in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Townsend dabbles with flavors of intellectual and cultural history creating a beautiful sampling of several approaches.

Methodologically, generalizing institutional histories into field studies can be problematic, but Townsend appears to navigate this terrain well (another example of this method is Condom Nation: The U.S. Government's Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet by Alexandra M. Lord). This success comes, at least in part, from the structure of the book. By outlining a consistent and visible chapter design in the introduction, Townsend provides two different templates for reading the book and a sublevel of continuity that might otherwise be missed.

Structure and continuity are two of the best features in History’s Babel. By consistently referencing groups to one another, Townsend presents in simple fashion a complex network of subgroups and interests within the AHA. The interplay between academics, teachers, archivists, and others provides the majority of Townsend’s work. Starting with the relative dearth of academic historians in the 1870s, Townsend describes the AHA’s early expansion and efforts to promote the cause of history as a legitimate field in the late nineteenth century. He then traces how this expansion and legitimization led to improvements in methodology and pedagogy, eventually leading to a breakdown of the original group. As stakeholders in the AHA developed their own professional interests, academic research historians assumed greater control of the organization, eventually marginalizing archivists, teachers, editors, and amateur historians. The final section Townsend devotes to the eventual fracturing of the American Historical Association, leading to spin-off organizations such as the American Association for State and Local History, National Council for Social Studies, and the Society for American Archivists.

Townsend’s narrative arc reads much like local church histories, tracing a group of interested parties coming together, growing into a diverse organization where one group dominates, a splitting of the original assembly, and a recognition of hubris in hopes of eventual redemption. In this sense, History’s Babel is tragically apologetic, recognizing that academic historians became lost in research without concern for its presentation to anyone outside the field. It is appropriate that this work appears now, at a time when history is once again facing challenges to legitimacy and authority. Given the distance in time from his subject, Townsend is able to critically assess the actions of major players in the AHA without drawing ire. Townsend carefully avoids laying blame on any particular individuals. Instead, he presents this division on a lamentable natural progression of interests, exacerbated by the professionalizing interests of research historians. This apologetic perspective can, at least in part, be attributed to the source material that Townsend uses. Townsend draws primarily on organizational publications from the AHA and other groups. Occasionally, Townsend supplements these published works with letters between members, but these occur so infrequently one must be cautious about applying his findings to the whole membership of the AHA.
Small details within the book enhance its message. While visually simple, the graphs successfully reinforce Townsend’s arguments in an easy to understand fashion. The index is well designed with entries that are straightforward and well-reasoned. Even the notes are well written, providing information in an easy to read fashion that teases out some of the finer points of Townsend’s arguments. Overall, these details add to an already well written book that is direct and simple to understand, while being historically sound.

This great attention to detail and Townsend’s well organized prose combined make it easy to understand why History’s Babel was chosen as the National Council on Public History’s book award winner. History’s Babel is a fascinating work, suitable for serious academic readers, as well as the armchair historian wanting to know more about the history of the field. It should be considered essential reading for students contemplating entering historical study. Townsend presents a period with remarkable similarities to our own, one in which history faced challenges in the curriculum from politicians, science, and math (before it was STEM) as well as an internal struggles for the future of the discipline. Townsend communicates a narrative which begs for reconciliation between the branches of history while understanding that they are now very different entities with their own agendas and cautioning the current field of academics as to the dangers in over-specialization. 

No comments:

Post a Comment