Historians partying like it’s 1959
Take twenty historians, put them in a backyard with grill, add beer, mix gently. Let sit. After an hour, you should have a simmering party, spiced by political commentary, outrageous jokes, and loud (if obscure) arguments. Maybe someone will throw a football. Why is it, then, that these zany, fun-loving, opinionated people take off their party hats when they sit down to write articles? What power does the written word have that it can drain the blood out of the most interesting of authors? It was as if we all took a minor in Bland at grad school. (No, not you dear reader, I’m talking about the others). Place some of the blame on inclusive language, the specialized vocabulary we use to speak to our peers (though I should say, it usually sounds boring to them as well). Place the rest of the blame on fear. Graduate students, the young sea turtles of the Academy, hatch by the thousands and run for the water, desperate to remain unnoticed until they mature enough to go on the market. Get off the beach! You may be eaten by your thesis committee. Once hired, the danger is over, but alas, the damage is done, the behavior learned. The newly minted academic passes on the instinct of Bland to the new generation.
Done with prelims, thesis ahead
Not that fear goes away once hired. There are other dangers. Try this experiment at your next encounter with a historian. (It will be most effective at a conference talk). “How does your work shape your views of (insert current issue) ? A sheen of sweat will appear on his brow. His buttocks will tighten. His mouth will open and close like a trout on the dock. What is the subject of his fear? Historians are schooled to judge past and present as separate entities, related entities of course, but separate. They are first cousins, if you will, who talk nicely to each other but should never marry. To read the past through the lens of the present is to violate a sacred rule of the historiography, brought down to us by British historian Herbert Butterfield, who said Thou Shall Not Commit Whig History.
What about those who would read the present though the lens of the past? This has more credibility, especially among politicians and subscribers to Readers Digest. They liberally quote author George Santayana who said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While historians don’t exactly shudder at this pronouncement, it still makes them twitchy because it implies that there is some kind of formulaic or structuralist feature to history that allows it to keep repeating itself. In history departments today, this kind of thinking is bad. Historians are happy to admit that big forces are at work in history, but they get queasy saying things are predictable or pre-ordained. For them this sounds too much like the prophetic history of the Left Behind series (or, secular visions such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series). Historians like to think that the world contains its own capricious qualities that cannot be fully known, a Heisenberg uncertainty principle of human culture. In our literature, this is called “contingency.” In history departments, this is a good word like “organic,” “fresh-baked” and “locally produced.”
I can speak so flippantly about this because it happened to me. After giving a talk about the “Theory of the Open Polar Sea” to a public audience at the Explorers’ Club in New York City last year, some one had the nerve to ask me what I thought we should be doing about about global warming in the Arctic. I made trout-like motions for a minute or so, then forced out some mumbling explanation about why, as a historian of the nineteenth century, I had no business wading into the present. The audience was silent. So I tried again, this time with some tepid position about environmental policy.
Robinson considers the present
It made me realize that if I am really a historian interested in engaging the public (and I am), it is not enough to engage people on my terms. It meant taking their questions and approaches seriously, being willing to step outside the comfort zone of “disciplinary thinking.” So I have started writing more about current events using, when I can, the context of the past as a starting point. The History News Network just published my first editorial on exploration and U.S. space policy.
Please read it and let me know what you think.