Commentary Magazine


Historians and Civic Responsibility

The American Historical Association is on a roll. Last month, I felt compelled to read not one but two articles in its monthly newsmagazine, Perspectives on History. This month, the count is two again. Next thing you know, they’ll be hiring British historians in the academy.

Well, let’s not get carried away. Still, the piece by the AHA’s 2011 president, Prof. Anthony Grafton of Princeton, is worth a read if you can get past the pay wall. Subtly titled “History Under Attack,” it lays out all the charges against the academy in general, against the qualitative disciplines more particularly, and against history most specifically. Prof. Grafton regards these charges as heads of a hydra that can be readily cut off, though the critics will not be persuaded.

But Prof. Grafton believes the specific charges are but a distraction from the actual problem. As he puts it, “the real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical: it’s that our research and teaching are nothing more than sterile pursuits of mind-numbing factoids, tedious and predictable exercises in deploying the evidence to prove predetermined conclusions.”

Prof. Grafton doesn’t help his case that this mode of inquiry is “honest …  austere, [and] principled” by asserting that history matters “more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before.” Maybe he’s implying that CNN is to blame, though I think not. It’s a pity that the president of the AHA can’t defend history without leaving the impression he believes that, basically, the job of the honest, austere, and principled historical profession is to do something about Fox News.

But the real problem with Prof. Grafton’s essay is what he doesn’t mention: professionalism. He writes a lot about professors, but not at all about the concept that defined the word. All the charges, including the ones he dismisses so rapidly, really come down to one: that the academy is failing to fulfill its professional responsibilities, both those internal to it and those that relate to the broader society.

This latter point is illustrated by Prof. Grafton’s desire to “find simple, cogent answers” to his self-defined nub. He refers with moderate enthusiasm to Martha Nussbaum’s belief that historians should teach “civic engagement and other moral lessons.” “Engagement”: no danger of politicization there. But he inclines toward Anthony Beevor’s argument that — quoting Beevor — “history should never be used to inculcate virtuous citizenship. Yet it offers the richest imaginable source of moral example and moral dilemmas.”

I certainly agree with in Beevor’s final point. But in reading Caspar Weinberger’s memoirs recently, I was struck by his quotation of the traditional dictum that accompanies the receipt of a Harvard Bachelor of Law: “You are awarded the degree of Bachelor of Law, and admitted to the study and practice of those wise restraints that make men free.”

Maybe Harvard’s got it wrong and there are no such restraints. But Harvard’s in good company: as Washington put it in his Farewell Address, “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” That implies that history (and other forms of knowledge) does certainly have a role to play in inculcating virtuous citizenship.

That, in turn, implies that history, as a profession, must also be justified, in part, by how it fulfills its civic responsibilities. Now, there is room for much debate on what, exactly, those responsibilities are, but it does not get us far to frame them in terms of the merits of history as a discipline. No matter how true that defense, it ignores the fact that history is also a profession that has actual practices and failings.

And it would seem that the AHA agrees that broader failings do exist.  On the very next page of Perspectives is a piece by Jim Grossman, executive director of the AHA, on “Citizenship, History, and Public Culture.” Grossman recently watched a naturalization ceremony. He notes that “historians tend to downplay these kinds of ceremonies. … [O]ur scholarship has perhaps been too quick to dismiss the meaning of citizenship to the millions of Americans who over the years have valued not only its material benefits, but its meaning.” The reflexive dismissal that Grossman criticizes so mildly is, in reality, a serious example of professional and civic irresponsibility.

Grossman concludes by noting that the “Study Materials for the Civics Test” reach more Americans than even the best-selling work of history: “And few of us have ever even heard of it.” So it’s not true, certainly — to quote Prof. Grafton’s retelling of those hideous myths that rest so unfairly on the shoulders of the historical profession — that “professors are imprisoned within sclerotic disciplines, obsessed with highly specialized research.” Not true at all. Thank goodness for that.

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