Sam Fallon is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Geneseo.
In a recent USIH blog post, L. D. Burnett accuses me of “pooh-pooh[ing] historians” in order to hawk my forthcoming book. Much as I would like to believe that a Chronicle opinion piece could goose sales of a book on sixteenth-century literary culture, it seems unlikely to me that college libraries are paying much attention. Besides impugning my motives, though, Burnett gets the essay itself wrong in some important and revealing ways.
First, Burnett incorrectly frames my essay as a critique of history as a discipline. In fact, the essay devotes equal space to historians and to literature professors; its concern is the humanities broadly, since nearly every humanistic discipline understands itself as engaging with and representing the past. The mistaken belief that the essay is a critique of historians by an outsider, rather than of humanists by an insider, leads to some other easily corrected errors. For instance, I don’t suggest that historians—or any humanists—have never heard of Hayden White. On the contrary, I argue that humanists have absorbed him completely. The fact that historians and other humanists do have a sophisticated theoretical orientation is why the literalism I describe seems so striking.
Second, Burnett seems to believe that I am contemptuous of efforts to correct false claims about the past. This is untrue. There is no doubt that there are liars whose bad history needs to be rebutted, and forcefully. But Dinesh D’Souza is a charlatan who’s been exposed many times over. Who is being persuaded when he’s debunked for the thousandth time? Performances like these are played to audiences of insiders, a fact pointed up when a thread is devoted to listing the dozens of colleagues who have also debunked him.
The primary object of my critique, however, is not D’Souza-debunking specifically, but a whole style of argument: one that invokes historical facts where no historical claims are being made. In debates over Trump’s proposed wall, for instance, facts about medieval walls are not that helpful, because the real questions are political, not historical.
The impulse to take my essay as a critique of the discipline of history does strike me as symptomatic in at least one respect. It suggests how much the discourse within the humanities at present is shaped by the anxieties of academic guilds on behalf of their proprietary forms of expertise. Humanistic contributions to the public discourse are stronger when rooted in a worldview than when rooted in a professional self-conception. This was the ultimate claim of my Chronicle essay, and it’s one that bears repeating now.