U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Getting the Right History vs. Getting the History Right

It has come to my attention that an English professor with a forthcoming book to sell has been Working on His Brand by publishing an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that pooh-poohs historians for our quaint infatuation with facticity.

In turn, the Chronicle has been working on its traffic numbers by alternately blurbing this article on Twitter as critiquing historians for our fondness for “potted facts” or for our “fact-grubbing.”

You see, historians who spend time in the public sphere citing and explaining archival evidence which refutes the fatuous and false narratives of, say, Dinesh D’Souza are simply wasting our time, the article argues.  We have obviously never heard of Hayden White, who – you all will be amazed to learn! – had key insights about the work that narrative does in shaping accounts of the past for particular ends.  So, for example, historians of Medieval Europe who seize upon the erroneous proclamation that Walls Were the Solution to Social Ills in order to offer a better informed and more nuanced explanation of what life in the Middle Ages was actually like are missing the point entirely.  Nobody cares whether these polemical assertions are true, and fact-checking them will do nothing to halt their power.

Other recent polemics aimed at historians have followed a similar line.  There was the “Theory Revolt” flash-in-the-pan manifesto, which mocked the field for its infatuation with empiricism and its privileging of archival evidence over Theory – a term the manifesto never bothered to define, either because it was addressing only initiates to the mystery or because, like obscenity, Theory is something we all know when we see it.

Then there was the highly-acclaimed historian and public intellectual who recently suggested that historians have lost our way by giving up on telling big stories, ceding the field to the Dinesh D’Souzas, Bill O’Reillys, and David Bartons of the world.  What we need, you see, is Narrative Sweep.

And of course there was that Washington Post column, published within the past month, written by some walking fedora with a Yale degree but perhaps not a Yale education (see Jeremiah Day for further explanation), regurgitating this decades-old falsehood:  nobody teaches military history or diplomatic history any more.

I am so tired of this bullshit.  It’s not new, it’s not true, and it’s not helpful to historians or to a reading / viewing / Tweeting public that needs and deserves good, solid, dependable, sound, well-argued, well-considered history.

At a time when malevolent polemicists without an ethical care in the world are crafting patently false narratives about the past in order to provide cover for a global white supremacist movement, there is something frankly heartening about the workmanlike empiricism of historians who challenge the lies and fabrications embedded in such narratives at every turn.

All that fact-grubbing! Don’t those fools know that people believe these narratives because they want them to be true?

Yes, we know.  And we persist in our thankless and frankly quite hopeless task of crafting an account of the past that demonstrates an ethical commitment to veracity, to evidentiary soundness, to an honest accounting of evidence that might contravene or undermine the overall thrust of our arguments. And when we see others pushing accounts that are bristling with falsehoods, fabrications, and intentional avoidance of plain facts that contradict their claims, we pause from our own work to point that out for the benefit of the occasional reader who may actually be interested in what Medieval Times were really like or in why the Republican Party platform of 1860 would be unrecognizable to the Republican Party of today.

At a moment when everyone with something to sell or someone to shill for is scrambling to get the right history, we fact-grubbing historians are working hard to get the history right.

The stories we end up telling may be forgettable from the outset. Most of them will likely be forgotten. And most of us will be forgotten too.

But we do the work anyhow.

Any fool with an agenda can come up with the right “history” to serve their polemical aims.  Our task is much harder, and our calling is higher, because we have to get the history right.  If we’re lucky, it will sound good in the telling.  But, good or not, it must first of all be true.  Our job is to tell only true stories about the past.

This is our witness to the world:  things may not always be as we wish, but we must deal with them bravely and honestly as they really are.

Pity the fool who views such commitment with contempt.

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Not everyone will agree with LD Burnett on this. But this is a good post.
    It’s pithy and thoughtful. Note, for example, her plea to historians to “persist in our thankless and frankly quite hopeless task of crafting an account of the past that demonstrates an ethical commitment to veracity, to evidentiary soundness, to an honest accounting of evidence that might contravene or undermine the overall thrust of our arguments.”
    I happen to agree, though I’m not as sure the task is “hopeless.” But the crucial issue here is that LD Burnett is telling people that it’s OK (even good) to think like a historian; we can disagree about what that means. Both of these things are what we do.

    • I liked the Chronicle essay and don’t think the sarcasm is warranted. His point, as I read it, is that when we as historians intervene in public debates, we should be presenting our claims as arguments and interpretations — rooted in facts, to be sure, that may be unknown to many — rather than as possessors of the actual knowledge that the benighted public (or, as is often the case, the benighted conservatives) simply doesn’t get. No matter how strongly we feel that our interpretations are correct, we should be acknowledging the contested nature of historical interpretations of significant historical questions.

      • David, I didn’t see your comment in the queue when I was composing my response to Jim, or I would have looped you in as well.

        Your reading of the Chronicle piece is certainly charitable, and maybe I could learn from that, but most historians I know in the virtual world and in real life found it frankly insulting that a literary scholar would be both so condescending as to suggest that historians might want to look up this dude named Hayden White and so foolish as to ignore the constraints and possibilities of Twitter as a medium of public engagement. Twitter threads serve a different purpose than monographs. As tempting as it is to compose the remainder of my manuscript as a series of tweets, I know that it must do a different job for a different audience than my twitter feed, which is filled with f-bombs, pictures of my puppy, drink recipes, and so forth, and I will write it accordingly.

        And the I’m-going-to-poke-the-historians-in-the-eye clickbait at the Chronicle — and the Chronicle’s flogging of the same — is not the only target of this broadside. Indeed, among the three exempla of asinine assessments of the historical profession, I think the worst, by far, is the Theory Revolt manifesto, for reasons I laid out in my comment to Jim below.

        In this age of “alternative facts,” you damn well better believe that historians are going to be “fact-grubbing” to the point of obnoxiousness — even as we contend with the contested nature of truth. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can’t tell if this Chronicle piece wants to ban gum or wants to ban walking, but either way it’s a censorious little screed…as opposed to this, my truly majestic panegyric to the fidelity of historians!

  2. Jim, thank you for the generous reading; “pithy” is one way to put it! I was provoked, and I have written a provocation. I could have said more about the Theory Revolt business, but for now will say simply this: historians are patiently, painstakingly broadening and deepening what constitutes “the archive,” and as we work through it, we are finding lives and stories and meanings that were silenced and marginalized and suppressed and all but lost, so I find the timing of this call to abandon empiricism and break free of the archive a little bit fishy.

    As I mentioned to someone on Twitter, I take a Pragmatist’s view of truth as something we are all in the business of working toward. I have not claimed anywhere in this post that historians are in possession of or are guardians of the truth, but that we must be truthful and we must say things that are true. I just told my students last week that if they are looking for causality, they should consult the physicists, but if they are looking for meaning, history is where it’s at. We are about arriving at the best possible understanding of the meaning of things past. But our understanding is based on/in something, and if it is based on falsehoods, it will be faulty, even if it seems appealing.

    Pragmatically speaking, the best possible understanding is the one that is able to account for and allow for the most complete evidence available to us as inquirers. This is why the pursuit of truth is a collective endeavor — no single one of us can see the whole. But to leap from that observation to the nihilistic conclusion that since none of us can see the whole, none of us should care about whether what we write is true or not — that’s foolishness.

    Okay, now back to the Yale Report(s) of 1828, which undertook a deep investigation of the aims of higher education, defined those aims in a particular way, and then concluded that (surprise!) Yale’s curriculum as it was then designed was ideally suited to achieve those aims.

    Sometimes we find what we are looking for, and sometimes we make a show of looking for what we find.

  3. Thank you, as always,I really appreciate your analysis & delivery. Like you, LB, I found the article off point. As I tweeted, “the premise is incorrect. Those who engage in public debates often provide historical context, nuance & don’t simply correct facts. He takes a few examples & indicts the entire enterprise of public engagement.”
    In response to David’s defense of the article, I politely disagree. I write for the public and all of my essays have arguments but the intervention often rests less on my thesis, and more on the evidence or stories that I am revealing to the public to broaden the debate—that’s a different approach to how I write books.
    I have published, for instance, many opeds on both my first and second books. While these editorials had very clear arguments, i’m also introducing new evidence and stories to the public; It’s not just about the analytical framework. In my first book I uncovered how tens of thousands of freed slaves died at the moment of freedom, which the public did not know about. Black mortality in 1865 is not an argument; its a fact. I spent over a decade doing research that made me an authority. I didn’t become an authority simply because I signed my name to the editorial as a historian. Again this is one of the major points that the English professor missed. I have an argument as to why so many former slaves died but to reduce my intervention simply on the basis on the rhetorical contours of my argument fails to acknowledge the material realities of emancipated peoples’ lives that have been otherwise erased. Similarly in my second book I wrote about a virtually unknown massacre of gay people in an arson attack on a gay bar in 1973. My opeds then provided important historical context to the Orlando massacre in 2016. Again, to reduce this intervention on the grounds that it is mere a reflection of my authority to construct the past renders dead gay burnt corpses as simply props resurrected from the ashes to make my argument. Hell, no. Why we write cannot be so easily disaggregated from what we write.

    I don’t want to write too much here but I think there’s also a difference between how we write books to contribute to historiography and how we intervene in public debates.

    • Jim, thanks so much for this comment (for some reason, it posted twice, so I deleted the duplicate).

      I appreciate the way you are centering human experience and human lives in your remarks here. This is especially important as a response to the “Theory Revolt” business, which took potshots at empiricism, at historians fetishizing the archive, etc. — as if the people and the meaning they made of their lives don’t really matter.

      What else should history offer but a human past, truly and humanely rendered?

      Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a historian who has spent time either acting as if / arguing that narrative doesn’t matter. I also can’t think of a historian under 75 or 80 years old who hasn’t had to either explicitly or implicitly engage with the ideas of Hayden White. I don’t know where that English prof gets his straw men, but they’re several decades out of fashion. Everything old is new again…for somebody.

  4. L.D, I have to say that when I saw the blog title on facebook and read the post, I was (a) frustrated that the author you were challenging was not named and (b) fully expecting it to be some major figure whose comments actually reach people and sometimes even change (or solidify) attitudes among scholars and academics.

    I had to google a few keywords to find the actual Chronicle piece, which was a relatively speedy exercise (so I’m not complaining), but I’ll admit to being somewhat astonished to find that this was no weighty intervention from a senior colleague but rather an op-ed by an assistant professor at a SUNY regional campus who is bringing out his first book in a short while (good for him on that, basically).

    So while I think there’s a reasonable discussion to be had over whether historians do or don’t tend to mistake politicians’ demagoguery for student errors that they need to publicly correct (imo they do but it’s a legitimate reaction), it’s worth noting that early-career academics in all fields, including history, tend to want an extra line or two on their CV when they come up for tenure, and occasionally write articles with a polemical edge in the hope they get past the gatekeepers and into publication.

    As a side note, I have heard enough of ‘let’s poke the literary scholars in the eye’ from historians (including from some people I like and respect, so I don’t take it that seriously) that I don’t feel it needs an intellectual 911 call when the poking goes in the other direction.

    • Not to worry, Martin. A response from this poor junior scholar whom you picture as just looking for another line on his CV, and whom you seem to be implying is somehow being unfairly singled out for critique — because he’s young? because he’s just landed a tenure-track job? because he was just trying to get noticed? because he’s an early-career academic and doesn’t know any better? — will appear at the blog here in a few hours. I will let his response speak for itself.

      But I wonder…are you suggesting that I, who am myself an “early-career academic” (actually, given the job market, I’m closer to a never-gonna-have-a-real-career academic), have somehow been unfair to this poor junior scholar at a regional state university? “He’s just trying to write with a polemical edge so people will notice him, bless his heart, give the poor guy a break, etc, etc.” Well, he succeeded, and people noticed him — literally thousands of historians noticed and read his essay, including this historian. So he got what he was looking for, according to your view of the situation, and he has been rewarded with at least one response (this one) that has apparently resonated with thousands of historians, if blog and social media metrics are any reliable indicator. And yet somehow I’m the — what’s the word we’re looking for…?, starts with a “B”…?

      Ah, yes. Somehow I’m the Bad Guy here?

      That’s some double standard.

      • For what it’s worth, L.D., I was not suggesting either
        a) that this guy is being unfairly singled out for criticism,
        b) that you were being unfair, or
        c) that you’re some kind of Bad Guy (upper case or not).

        I was suggesting
        a) that the impression was given that his was a more high-end intervention than is actually the case,
        b) that there seems to be an unwillingness to at least take his commentary as offering a basic argument to be taken seriously (remembering that the issue isn’t about who has or has not read Hayden White but about historians responding to comments in the public/political sphere), and
        c) that there has been a certain amount of willingness to dish it out but not to take it when it comes to historians engaging with literary scholars (I’d be happy to concede, on both sides).

  5. Thank you for writing this, especially for putting the Chronicle article into a wider field of reference. As one of the public scholars criticized by name in the Chronicle piece, I also had problems with it, though interestingly not the problems you discuss. I am a literary historian. I can see that there is a subtextual disciplinary dimension to the piece. It is making the kind of argument literary critics often uncharitably make about historians, and so it is aggravating old wounds. Yet Fallon’s decision to feature my Vox essay meant that he had to pitch the argument above the level of the discipline, and this has led to odd moments, such as the premise, on the one hand, that historians need to be lectured about Hayden White, but the premise, on the other hand, that all humanists read Adorno in graduate school.

    My own reaction was twofold. First, the piece uses what I think you and I both consider a valid observation, that there is only so much a historical fact can do in public discourse, as a lever to do something trite, accuse medievalists of taking things too literally. It’s difficult for me to imagine any other period of specialization being the centerpiece of such an argument. Second, Fallon gives no positive vision for public scholarship. The piece is all negative. As such, it is always liable to be read as recommending something very old-fashioned, that humanists leave their expertise at the door when entering public fora. On Twitter Fallon has confirmed that his essay assumes a fundamental distinction between the classroom and the world, pedagogy and rhetorical persuasion. I find this a very dubious dichotomy, because students bring public discourse “in” with them, and citizens bring their education “out” with them. Responding to public life through one’s academic expertise isn’t the only way to respond, but it’s a valid way. If the dichotomy were really true, this would be as much as to concede what the far right has long maintained, that academic expertise counts for nothing off campus.

    • Eric, my pleasure. Thanks for reading and commenting — and thanks for recognizing that my piece situates the Chronicle article within a broader trend. It was one of three or four different interventions this post called up, and conveniently the one that most historians and literary scholars I follow were currently discussing, so it made for an easy peg.

      I’m not sure what to make of the critique above which seems to be implying either that the piece wasn’t “big” enough or its author wasn’t important enough to warrant mention in a blog post here. That’s a conception of public engagement and the public sphere that doesn’t really square with the work that this blog does or the space it holds open. So I also appreciate your comments above about the changed and changing ways that academics are participating in public discourse.

      Anyway, the author of the Chronicle piece has written a response to my post; you can read that here: A Response to L.D. Burnett

  6. This is an inspiring post about the important work that scholars are doing to stem the post-truth tide. We’re all very fortunate that a space like the USIH exists to host these kinds of discussions – and to welcome the author of the original CHE essay to join in the conversation.

    There is, however, an element of L.D. Burnett’s piece that I want to push back on, and that is the conflation of Theses on Theory with the larger revolt against facts. That text certainly has its faults, including a nebulous treatment of ‘Theory,’ and I hope that it will be read and debated. But it urges a reflection on the epistemological grounding of scholarship that, in my opinion, doesn’t belong to the same category as discourse that is outright contemptuous of reality. It would be a loss, I think, if one consequence of the profession’s embrace of fact-checking as a public service was an unwillingness to consider the historicity of our own claims to know.

    • Daniel, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I have not read the very latest writing from the Theory Revolt group, but the initial manifesto was weird about setting up straw-men that was pretty similar to what the Chronicle piece did: characterizing the whole field as inattentive to, unaware of, or disinterested in historical epistemology while denigrating the necessary investigative work of history as “fetishizing” the archive.

      I did watch a good part of a livestream talk by Joan Scott and some others that took place at the New School some time last fall. In that forum, Scott said, “I had some grad students who I had *thought* had taken the epistemological turn, and now they write perfectly respectable conventional histories, and I read them and think, ‘What happened? How did I lose *them*?'” That was a pretty chilling and frankly creepy thing to hear from a senior scholar — academic filiation is problematic enough, but ideological cloning is gross. It’s just really not clear to me how the Theory Revolt statement/movement is itself going to accomplish the task of moving beyond a fetishization of certain modes of discourse that were once in fashion but now are not.

      I wrote a brief thread about Theory Revolt — I guess the hashtag popped up in my feed in relation to the AHA — at the end of December. Here’s that: Thread on theory revolt.

      I would very much have liked to attend the AHA 2019 panel on the Theory Revolt manifesto, but my own panel was scheduled against it. However, I heard from some who did attend that there were some awkward semi-confrontational moments — someone who was there would have to fill in the details.

      In any case, the manifesto and this Chronicle article, as well as the other pieces / comments I mentioned, are all instantiations of a more general idea in circulation. The particular prescription changes from intervention to intervention, but the diagnosis is the same: However You are Engaging the Public, You Are Obviously Doing It Wrong.

      I suppose in a way historians should be heartened that there are people who seem to entertain the notion that if we could just get our act together in whatever way they imagine, we would be able to tap into some extraordinary hidden power to shape and direct the flow of public discourse that would yield some kind of significant improvement. English professors and Washington Post warmongers can be excused for such fantasies, but our fellow historians surely know better than that.

  7. Y’all seem to have missed the point that THEORY plus EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE equals an ACTIONABLE APPROXIMATION of REALITY. Scholars of all stripes sometimes rely too much on theory, or too much on empirical evidence, in their quest for RW relevance. Some have the “facts” right but use an inappropriate “model” to interpret them. Others hit upon the right model but don’t take sufficient care to find good data and end up with GIGO. The worst apply bad models to bad evidence. But the saddest thing, for me, is that in 2019 most of us are still in our little silos, protecting our “discipline” instead of discovering and disseminating actionable approximations of reality. If we don’t do this in our own discourse, we sure ain’t doing it in our classrooms, at least not effectively. And then we wonder why Twitter is so toxic, etc.

    • Thanks for this example of literally formulaic thinking, which must come from yet another disciplinary discourse tradition. As scholars practice both historical inquiry and literary studies, at least as I understand them, formulae are not how we tend to approach our work. Probably the most “formulaic” framing in wide circulation among these two overlapping communities of inquiry is, ironically, Hayden White’s Metahistory. But I think a better word in that case might be “schematic,” as he describes/ diagrams how different narrative modes function. But “X + Y = Z,” and a discussion of humanistic inquiry as particular inputs always yielding predictable outputs is not generally how we think of our work. And I think that’s for the best.

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