Friday, March 24, 2017

History Relevancy Campaign: Part 7: Our Future (Continued)

Note: This is part 7 in an 8 part series on the History Relevancy Campaign, based on an article titled "The Value of History: Seven Ways It is Relevant" from Public History News Vol. 35, No. 1.

Note: Any quotes designated by an asterisk (*) come from that article.

Special thanks to the NCPH as inspiration for this series.
From the campaign's call to action: We believe that history --- both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past --- is critically important to the well being of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation.*

Our Future- Leadership- History inspires local and global leaders.*

Today, perhaps more than any time in my lifetime, we face a world where the basic facts and assumptions of our society are under attack. "Alternative facts," thinly-veiled partisan "skepticism," and questions of the role and power of ideology are all central components in the function and dysfunction of our democracy.

While there have been instances before where the ideological underpinnings of research have come under attack (The Culture Wars come to mind), these issues were related to education and civics (which, at least theoretically, should be subjects open to inquiry and continuous reassessment). Instead, today's arguments are about the basic assumptions that there can be any fundamental "truths" which researchers seek out. Rather than disagreements over methodology, sourcing, or perspective, the actual data on which analysis is based has been challenged as invalid and skewed by partisan interests. These problems have been compounded by unscrupulous researchers, pundits, and partisan hacks with no business presenting their "research" as scholarship.

What can history bring to this fracas? In reality, by becoming more assertive about the value of academically sound history, historians can help to refocus society on reality instead of panache. In fact, I was once asked to leave my local Barnes and Noble after my mother asked me what "history" book I would recommend in their aisles. "They don't sell that here," was my response. In reality, the shelves of my local bookstore are lined with the historical variety of "junk food" or "get-rich-quick" guides. Think of these as poorly written Cliff's Notes versions of history, though some of the biographies are at least entertaining. Bill O'Reilly's "Killing" series comes to mind as a prime example of what most Americans see as history, and that is a truly sad state of affairs. Books such as Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Niebuhr's Irony in American History, and Wells' A Short History of the World definitely have shortcomings, and it is the roll of historians to analyze and point out these flaws, but they also provide well-reasoned, detailed examinations of the human experience which go beyond shock and schlock presented in contemporary popular histories.

History does inspire local and global leaders to see problems in society as similar to those which have existed historically. Now, more than ever, it is our responsibility as historians to push our work into the public realm. Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals was a clarion call that the intellectual authorities of scholarship were retreating into the academy and away from having public voices. We won the battle against the excesses of McCarthy, patted ourselves on the back, walked away from the field, and forgot that the survivors from the excess still existed. Now, they've returned, after years of consolidating their power through a massive campaign of public outreach and re-education, ideologues have taken control of the machinery of our democracy. If we're going to survive, now is the time to begin reaching out to, and educating, the American populous through realistic and balanced assessments of our social, political, and cultural history, exposing the flaws and successes of both sides of the aisle. Inspiring leadership is a very long process. We've got a large amount of ground to make up if we will restore the public's confidence that there is substantial value in doing history right. Now is the time to begin that work, before we can't.

Suggested Readings

For those who read that are interested in knowing more, these books are well worth a look. If you have favorites, please feel free to share them in the comments.

  • Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963).
  • Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony in American History (New York: Scribner, 1952).
  • H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World (New York: Macmillan, 1922).
  • Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987).
  • Mortimer Adler, A Synopticon: An Index to the Great Ideas (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

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