THE PAST UNDER SIEGE: A HISTORIAN PONDERS THE STATE OF HIS
PROFESSION--AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
Wall Street Journal, July 17, 1998
Thirty years ago, when I first became a historian, I thought I knew
what historical work should be. I had this notion that the goal was to
get at the truth. It seemed obvious that to do that you had to put your
political beliefs aside and frame questions in such a way that the
answers turned on what the evidence showed.
As everyone knows, this whole concept of historical work has been under
attack in recent years. We have seen the rise of a new brand of
history, defined not so much by the kind of subject matter it seeks to
"privilege"above all, by a preoccupation with issues of gender--but by
something more basic.
Increasingly, the old ideal of historical objectivity is dismissed out
of hand. The very notion of "historical truth" is now often considered
hopelessly naive. Instead, the tendency is for people to insist that
all interpretation is to be understood in essentially political terms.
If objectivity is a myth, how can our understanding of the past be
anything but an artifact of our political beliefs? Indeed, if all
interpretation is political anyway, then why not give free rein to
one's own political views? Why not use whatever power one happens to
have to "privilege" one's own brand of history?
And in fact a particular brand of history is currently being
"privileged." Just look at what goes on at the annual meetings of the
main professional organizations, or what gets published in their
journals. "A Dual-Gendered Perspective on Eighteenth Century Advice
and Behavior"; "Constructing Menstruation"; "Rationalizing the Body";
"The Ambiguities of Embodiment in Early America"these are the sorts of
topics one sees all the time nowadays.
Or look at the kinds of courses that now, increasingly, are being
taught in major academic departments. One leading university lists a
course called "Introduction to Feminist Studies" as part of its history
curriculum. Note the title: not womens history, not the history of
gender relations, indeed, not history at all, but "feminist studies."
You don't have to be an expert in Foucault to deconstruct that.
Another course listed as part of the history curriculum there was
called "Bodyworks." The goal of this course, according to the syllabus,
was to examine the thesis that "dramatic new ways of imaging,
controlling, intervening, remaking, possibly even choosing bodies have
participated in a complete reshaping of the notion of the body in the
cultural imaginary and a transformation of our experience of actual
human bodies." "Using theories of postmodernism," this class would
address the questions: "are there postmodern bodies? And how have they
been constructed?" It would explore the thesis that "postmodern bodies
are cyborg bodies and that we are all cyborgs."
One sees this sort of thing more and more, and it is not to be
dismissed as simply a passing fad. The problem is that the
"privileging" of certain types of history necessarily implies the
marginalization of everything else. Those who do trendy work find it
relatively easy to get jobs and eventually to get tenure. But younger
scholars who still believe in the traditional concept of what
historical work should be find it much harder to get to first base in
their academic careers. Many drop out of graduate school when they see
which way the wind is blowing. And many talented undergraduates see
what is going on and decide not to go to graduate school in the first
The result is that the profession as a whole is gradually being
transformed. Last year, for example, I came across a reference to the
"virtual disappearance" of diplomatic history, my own field, from the
curriculum of "major departments." Can it be that people really think
that courses in "feminist studies" are more important, and more worthy
of being taught in history departments, than courses concerned with the
problem of war and peace? Its hard to believe, but increasingly that
seems to be the case.
This is a serious problem, not just for the academic community, but for
the country as a whole, because the way the past is understoodand,
even more than that, the quality of historical culture--is a matter of
profound importance to society at large.
So whats the solution? If there is an answer, it has to come from
within the profession, and in fact something important has been going
on. Two months ago, a new organization for professional historians, The
Historical Society, officially came into being. The scholars who joined
this new body--there were over 200 charter members--were no monolithic
bloc. Some of them resented the politicization of the major
professional organizations (a charge which the leaders of these
organizations do not even bother to deny). Some especially disliked
what they saw as the parochial and exclusionary attitude of the newly
dominant groups, reflected most notably in what went on at annual
meetings of the established organizations. Some simply found the
status quo boring and wanted above all to put some intellectual
excitement back into their professional lives.
But these people all had one thing in common: a deep dissatisfaction
with the status quo, a discontent strong enough to lead them to break
with the established organizations and to say through their action that
something new was needed.
Who are the scholars who have joined the new Historical Society? Just
tired old conservative white male professors, who had been left behind
by the transformation of the profession and who wanted nothing more
than to turn back the clock to the good ole days when they were in the
As it turns out, the new Society includes some of the most
distinguished scholars in the profession. Its membership covers the
whole political spectrum. Its president, Eugene Genovese, one of the
nation's most eminent historians, is an ex-Marxist and still certainly
a man of the left. It includes black scholars who, given the rawness of
the black historical experience, bridle at the idea that there is no
such thing as historical reality and that everything is just a
construct. It includes women who resent being told that they should be
doing "feminist history." And it includes many of our best younger
scholars who feel, with some justification, that they are not getting a
fair shake from the system.
Will the new organization transform the profession? A few months ago,
I thought the establishment of this new group would be little more than
a symbolic gesture. I was astonished by the response, and now I am
The real battles, of course, will be fought in the universities, and
organization like this can scarcely change things overnight. But the
new Society can show through its example what historical work should be
and what a professional historical organization should be. If it
succeeds at that, it might well have a major impact on the future of
historical culture in America.
[Mr. Trachtenberg, one of the organizers of the new Historical Society,
is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.]