More Pasts Than One

Eric Foner

Rarely has the study and teaching of history been the subject of such intense public debate as in the United States today. While America’s now-famous ‘culture wars’ originated in disputes over the teaching of literature – the demand that the canon should be expanded to include works by women and non-whites – history has recently taken centre stage. Assaults by structuralists, Post-Modernists and the like had already undermined many of the discipline’s methodological assumptions. American historians, however, like the public at large, are a resolutely non-theoretical lot. No one much cared when Jacques Derrida questioned the epistemological foundations of historical knowledge, or Hayden White insisted that historical narratives are, in large measure, carefully contrived myths. But when Indians spoiled the quincentenary of 1492 by condemning Christopher Columbus as a mass murderer, not only did the popular press cry ‘foul’, but historians had no alternative but to take notice.

Today, it seems, one can scarcely open a newspaper without encountering bitter controversy over the public presentation of the American past. In recent months, the flying of the Confederate flag over public buildings in the South has inspired marches and countermarches; it even became an issue in the Virginia Senate campaign between Oliver North (who favoured the flag) and Charles Robb (who opposed it). A proposed exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb produced howls of outrage from veterans’ organisations, who charged that initial plans cast the Japanese of the Second World War as innocent victims rather than aggressors. The pressure exerted by these organisations, augmented by the threat of a reduction in Congressional funding, forced the curators to rewrite the exhibition script to highlight Japan’s wartime atrocities and remove documents revealing that in 1945 high military officials had doubted the need for using the bomb.

There has also been controversy over proposed national standards for history education, drawn up with the participation of hundreds of scholars and every major professional association of history teachers. Lynn Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has condemned the plan because, among other things, George Washington is mentioned less frequently than Harriet Tubman, who led groups of slaves to freedom before the Civil War. Ms Cheney seems not to appreciate the difference between a set of curricular guidelines and a textbook. Topics mandated under the new standards, for example, include teaching the military strategy of the War for Independence – a ‘standard’ whose fulfilment would inevitably require attention to Washington’s leadership.

Debates over how history should be taught are hardly new, and hardly confined to the United States. Changes in the present always produce changes in the way the past is conceptualised – witness the rewriting of history now underway in the ex-Soviet Union, or South Africa’s efforts to rid school texts and museum exhibitions of justifications for apartheid. The American debate is reminiscent of the recent dispute in Britain, where defenders of traditional political history complained that new standards included ‘too much Peterloo and not enough Waterloo’. The battle in the United States, however, seems to have achieved a unique level of vituperation and obfuscation. And despite all the talk in popular magazines and instant bestsellers about the educational horrors wrought by politically correct ‘tenured radicals’ who supposedly dominate the universities, the Smithsonian controversy and Ms Cheney’s stance are evidence that attempts to impose a politically-defined view of the past come mostly from the Right.

In a way, it is odd that Americans are so exercised about the teaching of history, given that our country has always had a highly ambiguous attitude toward its past. For the generation that made the American Revolution, history was little more than an impediment to what Jefferson called the ‘pursuit of happiness’. Progress meant leaving behind the past, understood essentially as a narrative of tyranny. Other peoples might ground their sense of nationality on a shared experience dating back over the centuries: ours rested on a common future – the putative destiny of spreading the blessings of liberty to all mankind. ‘The past is the textbook of tyrants,’ wrote Herman Melville, ‘the future is the Bible of the free.’ Even today, despite the widespread popularity of historical novels and televised representations of the past, polls consistently show that few Americans possess a significant store of accurate knowledge about their country’s history (a reflection less of changes in teaching and scholarship than of the fact that large numbers of American homes are entirely without books and get their history ‘education’ from television and films).

On the other hand, American historians, like their counterparts throughout the world, have often functioned as nation-builders, constructing an intellectually plausible lineage for the nation state. As Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob demonstrate, a particular version of history has played a major role in defining the American nation. What they call the ‘self-congratulatory national history’ of the 19th century helped to recast the experience of a few million people on the fringe of European civilisation into a drama with meaning for the entire world. The United States was in fact a multicultural nation from the beginning. But one would scarcely know this from the writings of 19th-century historians like Francis Parkman and George Bancroft, who created a ‘single narrative of national history’ that had no place for Indian tribes (except as barriers to be overcome in the march of white progress), African-Americans (although their labour had much to do with the new nation’s phenomenal economic growth), or the Spanish and French-derived cultures of the trans-Mississippi West (the American love of liberty was said to derive entirely from Anglo-Saxon sources). Bancroft, indeed, had the opportunity, rare for a historian, to put his historical teachings into practice, since as Secretary of the Navy during the Mexican War of the 1840s he helped plan the conquest of California, thereby fulfilling America’s manifest destiny of expanding to the Pacific.

After the Civil War, historians absorbed the nation’s greatest crisis into the narrative of progress, celebrating the abolition of slavery but relegating blacks to the status of a problem confronting white society, rather than independent actors on the stage of history. In the works of turn-of-the-century ‘nationalist’ historians like James Ford Rhodes and Edward McMaster, the war – in which both sides fought for noble causes – was seen as a tragic disruption of the great national family and its most enduring legacy was the preservation and strengthening of the national state. Half a century later, American historians enlisted enthusiastically in the Cold War. Although the enemy had changed, this mobilisation was only a continuation in a different form of the Manichaean world view that has shaped so much of American historical writing.

Historical memory, of course, is selective. Forgetting some aspects of the past is as much a part of historical understanding as remembering others. As women, minorities and the children of ‘new immigrants’ have flooded into higher education and forced their way to the centre of American political life, what had once been forgotten has come to the forefront of scholarship. Today, political history has been displaced by social. As the authors put it, ‘women, minorities and workers populate American and Western histories where formerly heroes, geniuses, statesmen ... reigned unchallenged.’ The very identity of the authors of Telling the Truth about History illustrates the changes that have taken place in the discipline. All three, distinguished scholars at the top of their profession, are women. Three decades ago, during my eight years as an undergraduate and graduate student of history, I never once encountered a female teacher.

The new history has produced an enormous expansion of our knowledge of the American past. It has also, some complain, led to a fragmentation of the national experience into a story of conflict among fractious ethnic and racial groups, and the loss of any coherent sense of what Americans have in common. Defenders of traditional historical writing view the new history as a thinly veiled attack on American institutions, which emphasises inequality and victimisation instead of the onward march of progress. Even more threatening, in a way, is the widespread scepticism about the possibility of objectivity and truth in historical writing.

Perhaps because one of them, Margaret Jacob, is a distinguished historian of science, the authors explain such scepticism primarily in terms of the collapse of the ‘heroic model of science’, which originated with the Enlightenment. For two centuries, scientific investigation was held up as a disinterested quest for objective truth, a model for all other disciplines. History seminars, said Herbert Baxter Adams, one of the founders of history as a professional discipline in the United States, were ‘laboratories of scientific truth’. In the 20th century, however, such developments as relativity and quantum mechanics undermined Newtonian certainties, and, more important, according to the authors, complicity in Nazi experimentation, the development of atomic weapons and the Cold War fatally undermined the scientists’ claim to be disinterested searchers for truth. ‘Science has lost its innocence,’ and its fall has dragged down other faiths as well, especially the belief that scholars can operate on the basis of pure reason.

The authors slight the political upheavals of the Sixties as a destabilising factor in intellectual life, although as the coherence of American society disintegrated in that decade, so, too, did explanations of the American past based on an overarching liberal ‘consensus’. But they argue persuasively that the rise of relativism undermined the major paradigms of 20th-century historical analysis. Marxists, members of the Annales school and modernisation theorists, whatever their differences, had in common a ‘totalising vision’, in which explanations were held to apply equally effectively to the entire world. Similarly, quantitative history, hailed for a time as the antidote to historians’ subjectivity, also assumed that statistical analysis using neoclassical models derived from the experience of capitalist economies could be employed to study any past society. Human nature everywhere, according to the ‘cliometricians’, centred on the same rational, profit-maximising, market-oriented individual.

With the model of value-free science dethroned and past historians who wrote under the sign of objectivity revealed as products of their own times whose work was shot through with racism, the path was clear not only for the rise of the new social history, but for historians to begin to listen to critiques of intellectual life developed by deconstructionists, Post-Structuralists and neo-colonial theorists. Critics of the new history frequently lump together these and other intellectual approaches as if they were identical. In 1993, John Silber, the president of Boston University, promulgated a list of ‘intellectual theories’ his campus would ‘resist’, including such familiar targets as multiculturalism, ‘revisionism’ and deconstruction, and, in an original touch, ‘dance therapy’. The authors of Telling the Truth about History provide a real service in disentangling these and other intellectual trends, and explaining them with a lucidity far greater than that usually achieved by the proponents of these ideas.

Given the heat generated by the culture wars, it is remarkable that the authors manage to be so even-handed in their approach to the challenge posed by ‘Post-Modern’ theories. As befits their discipline, their first step is to historicise the current debate by making clear that controversy over how history should be conceptualised and taught hardly originated in the past few years. Today’s jeremiads over the alleged threat to Western Civilisation (both the college course and the thing itself) have their parallel a century ago in the writings of Charles Francis Adams and other Anglo-Saxonists alarmed by the influx of new ‘races’ (Jews, Italians and Slavs) into American society. Disputes in the 19th century over the demise of the Bible as a central component of education, or the elimination of Latin and Greek as prerequisites for historical study, were every bit as fierce as today’s debate over the literary canon. It is not our own ‘relativists’ but such giants of American historical writing as Carl Becker and Charles Beard who first ridiculed the idea that historical truth is fixed and permanent, that ‘fact’ and ‘interpretation’ are hermetically sealed off from one another, and that historical writing can somehow be disconnected from the point of view of the historian. It was Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History, not some modern Afrocentrist, who urged scholars to abandon the parochial idea that ‘Western Society’s history’ was equivalent to “ ‘History” writ large.’

Perhaps most important, today’s proponents of ‘identity politics’, who insist that racial or national culture is inborn and unchangeable, draw on a central element of the modern Western tradition, which invented the ideas of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ and ascribed to them all sorts of predictive powers about human behaviour. If these multiculturalists are a threat to American civilisation, they are wielding a weapon forged by the West itself.

Although resisting the more extreme Post-Modern critiques of intellectual life – the claims, for example, that history is a form of fiction rather than knowledge, and that no one can write about anything other than their own self without constituting the subject of investigation as a dehumanised ‘object’ – Appleby, Hunt and Jacob insist that historians have much to learn from current challenges to the epistemological foundations of their discipline. The fact that reality is represented via language is, they concede, an insuperable barrier to achieving a fully accurate portrait of the past. With Edward Said and others, they agree that knowledge and power have always been inextricably connected. And they embrace the idea perhaps most difficult for defenders of traditional history to accept: that there may be more than one legitimate account of past events, a ‘multiplicity of accurate histories’.

Despite these concessions, however, and like the traditionalists they frequently criticise, they ultimately rally to defend the intellectual integrity of the study of history. They accept that each generation can and must rewrite history to fulfil its own needs, but insist that history is more than a series of myths serving the interests of one or another social group. Reality, they insist, does exist, independent of the linguistic forms through which it is represented. So, too, does historical ‘truth’, not in a scientific sense, but as a reasonable approximation of the past.

Fifteen years ago, Oscar Handlin published a book of essays with the portentous title, Truth in History. Handlin knew what the truth was and who did and did not possess it Appleby, Hunt and Jacob also believe in historical truth, but do not claim to possess its secret. Truth, for them, is ever-changing. Indeed, it is never quite clear from their account what truth actually is. In good Jeffersonian fashion, however (Professor Appleby is one of America’s leading scholars of the Jeffersonian era), they are confident that in the free exchange of ideas, truth will eventually out. The very terms they use to describe their stance – ‘practical realism’, ‘qualified objectivity’ – suggest an absence of complete conviction. But if their belief in the possibility of truth is more an act of faith than a carefully worked-out philosophy, their analysis is commonsensical, prudent and a welcome change from the polemics of the culture wars.