What’s the Use of History? Part 2

Continued from here.

For Pepall, then, the relevance of history to any member of the public is rooted explicitly, indeed exclusively, in that person’s identity — an identity conceived, moreover, in terms of birth, nation, and a kind of essential ethnic continuity (“some of what happened [in Sumer] is with me still”). Yet Pepall is at the same time (and just as explicitly) committed to the idea that there is essentially one history that “the public” needs, that is to say one narrative, a story handed down to us by “the great and the good” historians of the past, whose work need only be updated occasionally to speak to “us.” Assuming that these two claims are meant to be compatible, the coherence of Pepall’s vision depends on the assumption that the only relevant “we” members of the public all share the same origins and identify in the same way: to wit, as “Western” heirs of a European and “Judaeo-Christian” tradition. To advance a vision of history so avowedly beholden to specifically late nineteenth- and early twentieth century notions of identity and tradition is not, again, to shun all theory and embrace instead “the order of things”. It is to embrace the particular theory one happens to cherish as if it is “the order of things”.

It is also, more importantly, to ignore reality. As a matter of simple fact, our country, our society, our public — and thus on Pepall’s own account the proprietors of our history — include a large variety of people who do not see themselves as the descendants of European colonizers (because they aren’t) or as the heirs of a Western tradition (which was codified as such, in any case, only comparatively recently, however much of Sumer may be coursing through Pepall’s veins). What becomes of these others? Given the fact of our public’s plural origins, we can adopt Pepall’s embrace of history as identity politics, or his assertion of one relevant historical narrative, but not both. If we really care about either the integrity of historical understanding or the relevance of history to the public, however, we’d be well advised to adopt neither.

Pace Pepall, genuine historical inquiry begins not with the didactic assurances of national identity (or ideology, or religion) but with curiosity, which is to say with questions. Questions are rarely innocent, to be sure. As noted above, even the most rudimentary engagement with history involves choices — about what is real, interesting, relevant — which, when they are made consciously and articulated reflectively, amount to a theoretical framework, but which are there in any event. But precisely because questions about history reflect the concerns of the questioner — precisely because history needs to be relevant to a living, changing audience — the questions change, must change, from one generation, and from one context, to the next. And since the answers depend on the questions and on the sources and methods that seem most likely to speak to them, the inevitable and entirely appropriate result is a multiplicity of histories.

This is not some grand statement of “postmodern” relativism. It is simply a recognition of the obvious: history stays relevant to people by answering the questions they put to it, or by exploring matters of pertinence to them. To suggest that what the general public needs in 2017 is to be improved by a steady diet of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century answers to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century questions, “with occasional updates”, is not only tremendously condescending; it is to admit that history as an intellectual endeavour is well and truly dead. It is to say that if you do not find answers to your questions in the pages of Macaulay or Gibbon (or Granatstein), if you seek to understand past experiences beyond the formation of nation-states or the creation of narrow intellectual canons, if you cannot adopt as an authoritative perspective on the past the point of view of an elite class of great men, then history has nothing to say to you. I can think of no better way to kill the subject and douse for good any remaining public interest in it.

As to the integrity of historical understanding, perhaps the most telling part of Pepall’s piece is his dismissal of “theory-driven” academic work as motivated by the moralistic desire to “indict” national heroes, to haul them into the PC courts of the present and convict them of racism, sexism, and so on. Besides the elementary point that “great men” are no longer as central to historians’ work as perhaps they once were — and so neither, logically, can attacking them be its central motivation — this rests at least in part on a couple of wilful misapprehensions. One is that exploring the ways in which various kinds of violence, hierarchy, and exclusion have been pursued or justified in the past is inherently an exercise in moralizing rather than in understanding. This view goes unexplained, and the example Pepall cites, a couple of phrases from an article on John A. Macdonald, does little to help. Both “malevolence” (as far as documents can establish it) and the tactical use of “starvation” were familiar in the nineteenth-century British Empire, so it’s hard to see how the attribution of either to Macdonald is “anti-history”. It may be a disputable interpretation, even an incorrect one. But if it is ahistorical Pepall doesn’t show how, and one doesn’t have to read far in any of the historians he recommends — Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Lecky — to find more elaborate and less substantiated imputations of motive and judgments of character, not only to great men but also to races.[1] His real beef seems more emotional than methodological, attaching to a certain vision of John A. rather than to any principles of historical interpretation. Of course, when history is reduced to identity, critical work is bound to hurt.

But Pepall’s opposition of “the [politically] correct standards of the present” to “how it really happened” reveals a second problem. “To understand ‘how it really happened,'” Pepall writers, “we have not only to know what happened but how it seemed to those who made it happen.” (Emphasis mine.) This sounds fine until we remember that “those who made it happen” (in this case, colonial conquest) were not the only ones there; so to make their views our sole point of access to understanding the past can be justified only if we wish to make them the sole spokesmen for their time. We may, of course, do so — generations of textbooks and surveys have — but that wilful narrowing of vision is no more essential to history than the nation-state or the Western Canon is to nature. Again, consider the following, from Pepall:

I am enough of a Whig to think that to have put slavery and torture and racism, largely, behind us is a kind of progress. But I cannot be confident in this acquis if history will not teach us why they were so long accepted and how experience turned us against them.

Forget the question of whether we have, in fact, put torture and racism behind us. Who is this “we”? Why is the “we” that accepted slavery, the “we” that starved and colonized, the privileged voice of the past? And why must we equate it with the “us” of 2017?

Pepall engages here in a very common, and very pernicious, fallacy: that “people” in the past were all parties to some kind of moral consensus that we too must adopt in order to understand them. Yes, we need to shed our assumptions to try and grasp what people thought they were doing — or having done to them. But there was no consensus, any more than there is now. It’s not as if everyone in the past accepted slavery; there were arguments against it even among the European nations engaged in it from very early on — to say nothing of what its victims thought. And it’s not as if the only sources we have for the past come from people who did accept it. The same goes for witchcraft. Ditto colonial empire. Ditto capitalism. Ditto whatever you like. Understanding context is vital. But one understands context, and history, better if one recognizes the contingency, complexity, and variety, as well as the sheer difference of past beliefs and practices. Pepall would have us assume that whatever was done was simply accepted by the only people that matter, rather than also questioned, debated, condemned — and then require us, grotesquely, to concern and indeed identify ourselves exclusively with the “them” that accepted it, on pain of being judged “anti-history”.

Having reduced history to this grotesque parade float, finally, Grand Marshal Pepall offers “university historians” a choice: get on board, or disappear:

If university historians will break out of their ivory tower and address us they will be welcome. But they must not talk down to us or presume that they understand history better than we do.

History requires empathy, the ability to escape one’s assumptions. It requires imagination. It requires curiosity, openness to the unexpected, and, especially, an interest in unfamiliar sources, voices, points of view. It requires engagement with a changing audience in a changing present. It also requires a great deal of hard work. Pepall’s ideal — an endless retelling of the same old, narrow, story — suggests none of this. Why is that a history that anyone, academic or otherwise, would want a part of?

Postscript here.


[1] I refer to the notorious footnote in Hume’s essay “Of National Characters”; David Hume (ed. Eugene F. Miller), Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, revised ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), 208 n.10. In general, it is doubtful how far Pepall’s historian-heroes either share or exemplify his views on theory or interpretation.

6 thoughts on “What’s the Use of History? Part 2

  1. Pingback: What’s the Use of History? | memorious

  2. Pingback: What’s the Use of History? A Postscript | memorious

  3. Thank you for a thoughtful and finely-written piece. But I do not think that your attack on John Pepall is well-based or that you have really defended what he attacked. Part of your misconception must be due to the rhetorical strategy he employs, but anger and contempt are what is left to us who have, in our lifetimes, witnessed the destruction of the humanities, which we so much cherished in our own upbringing. Please understand that this included reading Marx (and, for that matter, Georges Sorel).

    Pepall is defending what you advocate, which the importance of history to our self-understanding. For Canadians, this means the history of our country conceived of as a nation, not as a collection of parochial interests. W.L. Morton, whom Pepall mentions, and who is certainly unread in the academy, exemplified what I mean. He was fascinated by the European roots of our nation but equally by the story of the Metis (he was Manitoban after all). He wrote the most thrilling pages on the fur trade that I ever read.

    You are right that history-writing on this scale has not died out in America, where original, vital, and readable books are produced by academics to whom the story of their country remains important. These days, is it American or Canadian academics who have written the most impressive books about the Loyalists and the War of 1812? I think you know the answer.

    Pepall cites the great historians of the past to show that history-writing can be both universal and particular in its concerns. Should we ask for less?

    Its antithesis is to be seen in the journals. You criticize the sufficiency of Pepall’s argument, to my amusement, because he cites only one piece of execrable writing to make his point about the condition of academic history. But one is sufficient to demonstrate all the flaws of this school: the rigid ideological attitude, the propagandizing tone, the cod theoretics, and the jargon-ridden prose. This reflects, in fact, a hatred of the approach to history that you defend. The fact that the article appeared in our leading historical journal shows how completely acceptable its own approach is to what currently passes for the academic establishment.

    I note that you do not attempt to defend the article (or the historiography that lies behind it and so many others).

    We weep, and it does no good.


    • You write that “original, vital, and readable books are produced by academics to whom the story of their country remains important.” But I question the connection between vitality and nationality, which is evidently central to Pepall’s view. Of the examples I cited, and to which you are apparently referring (Foner, Lepore, Grafton, Beard, Spence), only two can plausibly be described as telling the story of their country; but more importantly, I might have listed many examples of vital and readable histories whose subject is not a country at all (most of Grafton’s work — from his studies of humanism to his history of the footnote — falls in this category). The motivation and ability of historians both within and beyond the academy to identify and pursue these kinds of topics often rests on the very academic historiographies you and Pepall denounce.

      If indeed “Pepall is defending what [I] advocate, which the importance of history to our self-understanding”, then I hope it is clear that I take any honest, historical self-understanding to require a good deal more than a national history, updated or not. I would also be extremely wary of tying the fate of “the humanities”, which began as a cosmopolitan endeavour and predates the nation-state, with the fate of such a history. The fit between nationalist (or, if you prefer, patriotic) nostalgia and concern for humanistic education at any level is, as far I can see, weak. The critical spirit that animates the humanities is bound sooner or later to disappoint anyone whose main concern is hewing to a patriotic line. So it has turned out here.

      You write: “You criticize the sufficiency of Pepall’s argument, to my amusement, because he cites only one piece of execrable writing to make his point about the condition of academic history. But one is sufficient to demonstrate all the flaws of this school”. Perhaps, but it is not sufficient to demonstrate that there is one “school” of academic history writing, an assumption that goes beyond the amusing and into the realm of silliness. On the strength of this argument it should be impossible for me, an academic historian, to hold the views you yourself attribute to me, much less to have written them as well as you say; as an academic, my views, work, writing, etc., are all spoken for, ex hypothesi, by Pepall’s favorite example. Yet here I am. What makes his example better than mine?

      There are plenty of things about academia, and academic history, and academic publishing in particular, worthy of critique. There are many, many things about the university that need to change, and in which the public has the utmost (often, sadly, unwitting) stake. We probably disagree on what these are, but let that lie. I take it as read that criticism and change are needed. (Nor am I rare among my colleagues in that regard.) But solid criticism — criticism that will find the right targets and lead to positive change rather than facilitate further regression — requires more than cherry-picked and half-digested articles or the bizarre caricatures of academics that arguments like Pepall’s almost invariably rely on. If you honestly believe the humanities are dying — and if it is indeed the humanities, rather than a story, that you care about — putting more slipshod arguments in the hands of people already cynical about the usefulness of education is no way to save them.


      • The books I was thinking of include The Civil War of 1812 (Alan Taylor), Liberty’s Exiles (Maya Jasanoff), and Crucible of War (Fred Anderson). The last-mentioned concerns the Seven Years’ War.


      • Right — and all three authors are widely read by their fellow academics in Canada and elsewhere. (I gave my copy of Anderson to my [non-academic] uncle once I’d finished it.)


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