Historian of the Left

Historians of the World, Adapt?

Professors Jo Guldi and David Armitage threw down the scholarly gauntlet six months ago when they published their bold appeal to rescue History from the “bonfire of the humanities.” The History Manifesto claims that the discipline’s descent into public irrelevance has resulted from current historical scholarship’s lack of long-term thinking. Citing statistics that show a precipitous decline (then slow rise) in the average time span of History dissertations over the 20th century, the authors warn of the “ever-present danger of short-termism.” Only long-term thinking and broader time scales, they argue, can capture the attention of policymakers and thus bring the expertise of historians to bear on the most pressing problems of our time: climate change, global governance, and economic inequality. Advances in digital humanities and “big data” provide the key to reviving the longue durée and recovering History from the dustbin of, well, history.

The authors have gone all in on the digital, open-source future of publishing, maintaining a website replete with a blog, permanent revision of the text, and a moderated discussion forum. This is History for the 21st century. Judging by the chilly reception Guldi and Armitage’s ideas received when they visited UC Berkeley last September and the heated exchange in the latest issue of the American Historical Review, however, many historians aren’t ready to enter this brave new world.

I hesitate to call Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s AHR critique  devastating, but it certainly shakes the foundations of The History Manifesto. The critics convincingly demonstrate that the statistics of declining time spans in History dissertations at the base of Guldi and Armitage’s argument in fact reveal the exact opposite: “Since the mid-1960s, there has been a steady rise in the length of time that dissertations cover, measured by either the mean or the median. How Guldi and Armitage manage to convert that expansion into a shrinkage is bewildering.” The manifesteers’ “instrumental explanations” and “irresponsible generalizations” service their dubious assumption that long-term automatically means more significant. Many of the discipline’s classic works, argue Cohen and Mandler, belie that assumption. Cultural history, microhistory, and indeed dusty old political history have consistently provided meaningful and relevant analyses of historical phenomena alongside broader surveys of the longue durée. One thinks for example of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which had a great influence on President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis — a book that effectively spanned just one month of 1914!

But Cohen and Mandler make a couple of false steps that diminish the impact of their critique. First and most glaringly, they deny that there is in fact a crisis of the humanities. And second, they claim contrary to Guldi and Armitage that “historians in the last forty years have been reaching larger and ever more diverse publics in a wide array of public theaters”: in the classroom, in the media, in new history museums, in the new appreciation for public history, and among the general reading public. Undergraduate history enrollments have gone up or least stabilized, history book sales have risen, and all seems well in the American historical profession.

In their reply, Guldi and Armitage pounce on these two missteps and accuse their critics of writing “an apology for business as usual and a defense of the status quo.” Concentrating on the weakest parts of the critique, however, the authors leave its strongest claims untouched and conclude with a rather facile flourish by using Mandler’s past words in praise of the long term against him.

In their own ways, each side of the AHR exchange has dodged the real issue. Contrary to what Cohen and Mandler claim, there is a crisis of the humanities if only because pundits, policymakers, and academics perceive one. But Guldi and Armitage miss the mark when they identify the problem as “endemic institutional short-termism in our culture beyond the university.” Instead of critiquing the objective factors that have caused this crisis, they blame the methods and ideologies of the humanities themselves. Theirs resembles Steven Pinker’s critique of the humanities published in The New Republic two years ago. Our fall into obsolescence is allegedly our own fault. What we need to do, imply Guldi and Armitage, is get with the times.

Marx’s famous opening line — “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism” — acknowledged the terrifying effect of the new revolutionary movement on Europe’s old regime. Guldi and Armitage, perhaps unintentionally, reverse the rhetorical function of this line when they appropriate it: “A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term.” Shouldn’t it be the long term? If their doctrine were truly revolutionary, then it should be the thing haunting our time and unsettling the established powers. Despite the outward trappings of radicalism, the Manifesto encourages historians simply to adapt to existing circumstances and go with the flow of scientism, quantification, and neoliberalism. They acknowledge this rather limited goal in their AHR reply: the Manifesto “firmly encourages more research along these [long-term] lines, but not by telling historians to do something they are not already doing or by urging the impossible. Instead, the book discerns an optimistic and creative tendency, aims to give it more energy, and affirms the new directions emerging in our field.” Historians of the world, adapt!

In a weird sort of disciplinary imperialism, The History Manifesto positions historians as uniquely capable among humanities scholars of undertaking this adaptation. The scientization of history, the cult of big data, the instrumentalization of history for current power structures: this in effect saves History from the bonfire of the humanities by dropping it into the tepid pond of the social sciences. An old debate, to be sure, but why save only History while the other humanities disciplines continue to burn? Shouldn’t we be focused instead on putting out the bonfire?

I don’t pretend to have a revolutionary solution to the crisis. Responding to Cohen and Mandler’s critique, Guldi and Armitage claim that “[h]istorians are not soldiers, nor are they sheep: they may not want to be led, nor can they be herded.” But historians should beware sheep in wolves’ clothing. The History Manifesto offers a vision of historians fully integrated into “the major institutions that shape most people’s lives — governments, corporations, NGOs, international agencies, and the like,” planning for the future with full consciousness of the past. But in Guldi and Armitage’s ideal world historians will at best serve as Hegemony’s Most Loyal Opposition, prompting minor corrections to major policy decisions and generally perpetuating the very status quo that the manifesteers deem so odious. They frequently invoke the talisman “speaking truth to power,” as if it might distract readers from noticing their real and perhaps unconscious aim: writing policy briefs for power.

The only way to ameliorate or favorably decide the crisis of the humanities is to really speak truth to power. Historians, having no control over economic processes or the class structure of the societies in which they find themselves, do have the ability to shape public debate and perceptions about the humanities, to convince legislators and university administrators to restructure budgets, and most importantly to educate future generations about the non-instrumental value of the arts, humanities, and general human curiosity beyond the balance sheet.

The controversy over The History Manifesto has exposed one problem in American academia that perhaps the humanities can fix themselves: a frustrating lack of any robust “culture of debate,” or what the Germans call Streitkultur. In an appeal to scholarly politesse, Guldi and Armitage take umbrage at the aggressive tone used by their critics. The “hanging judges” Cohen and Mandler, as they call them, dismiss the Manifesto as an “elevation of technique over substance,” “tendentious,” “overheated,” “fantasy,” “debacle,” “travesty,” “absurd distortion,” etc. But what else did the writers of a manifesto expect? They correctly label Cohen and Mandler’s critique a counter-manifesto but don’t seem to realize that it follows the same polemical model that they used themselves. If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.

On the positive side, the controversy has bred a kind of agonism potentially beneficial to both historical scholarship and the discipline’s public image — so long as it doesn’t devolve into outright antagonism. Raising the stakes of academic debate through provocative manifestos and what Jacques Derrida called a “warrior tone” forces some otherwise complacent scholars to decide where they stand on the most important questions of our discipline and our time. Despite their dubious research, suspect logic, and haphazard solutions, Jo Guldi and David Armitage deserve praise for their timely intervention. I may not agree with what they say, but I’m glad they’ve said it.

One Reply to “Historians of the World, Adapt?”

  1. Dr. Aaron Weinacht says:

    I agree that Cohen and Mandler’s critique succeeds more than it fails. I actually wrote a sharply critical review of the Manifesto over at the website “Front Porch Republic,” back in February. It is interesting that from much different points of view, and for a much different intended audience, I offered many of the same criticisms posed by both the AHR forum and yourself. To cite one example, the authors’ tone-deafness to the cognitive dissonance generated by their faux-populist tone and desire to write “policy briefs” as you (very nicely) put it, was pretty jarring.

    Cheers, Aaron

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