“History is hot right now,” claimed public historian Jason Steinhauer last week in a piece for Inside Higher Ed.
In the midst of a traumatic and turmoil-filled year — weekly violence, racial tensions, political upheaval, a shifting world order and wars with no ends in sight — we are crying out for historical perspective. Publications from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Affairs are asking historians to tell their readers if (a) yes, it’s really as bad as it seems or if (b) it has, at times, been worse and humanity has survived.
Many of the examples he cited featured historians responding to the candidacy of Donald Trump. He even discussed my own Anxious Bench post on how that campaign is sparking a debate about our discipline:
A recent piece in Patheos asks what exactly historians think we contribute in these trying times. Do we have special insights? Do we know lessons from the past that others don’t? Are we the true conscience of the nation?
But all this comes as history, as a field of study in higher education, seems to be less popular than ever — and doing worse than other programs at drawing students of color. “Thus we come to a fork in the road,” concluded Steinhauer. “On the one hand, historians are in high demand for the perspective they offer in our moments of deep societal anxiety and rupture. On the other, there are very real questions about who will serve as that voice in future crises. Can this period of spotlight do anything to help save the profession?”
A few quick thoughts here:
Why is this happening?
The first thing I want to ask is whether any surge of media or popular interest in the opinions of historians is actually all that unusual. I’d guess that the history of presidential elections would show a quadrennial pattern of historians rising in public prominence.
But as in so many other respects, there does seem to be something different about this election cycle. In both July and August, four of the ten most popular posts at this blog were somehow concerned with Donald Trump. Kristin’s post with Katelyn Guichelaar on the rhetoric of Trump and Hillary Clinton seems to have shattered all Anxious Bench records, garnering two or three months’ worth of normal readership all by itself.
So what’s going on? I think the key might be in the two adjectives Steinhauer used in the first quotation above: traumatic and turmoil-filled. “Historians,” he concluded that paragraph, “are the dispassionate voice amid the din that gets us to calmly sit down in our chairs and reflect.”
There can be something reassuring about the past at a time when the future evokes so much anxiety. At the Lutheran church we visited yesterday, the opening litany reminded us that “The day before us is uncertain / We know not what we will encounter on our way.” That unknowability is one reason that C.S. Lewis (via Screwtape) warned us not to dwell on the future, thought about which “inflames hope and fear.” So perhaps it’s natural that our minds would then turn in the other temporal direction; Lewis preferred us to simply live in the present (“the point at which time touches eternity”), but acknowledged that we could at least “have some knowledge of the past.”
Historians as public intellectuals
Of course, any historian knows that such knowledge is limited and complicated. So I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.
Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and
advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.
At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
Our students as our primary audience
As my own Trump post suggests, historians are not always comfortable with the “history communicator” role, especially if it leads us to think that “applied history” must outweigh studying the past for the past’s sake. Or if it tempts us to embrace the public’s love of historical analogies and make them carry more explanatory weight than they can bear. Ian Beacock put it well earlier this year for The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.
And much as I enjoy communicating with the public through writing and speaking, my students remain my primary audience. I hope that blog posts, for example, can do something to interest more people in the past and encourage them to think historically about it. But I know that the courses I teach at Bethel can accomplish those goals, for an admittedly smaller number of people whom I get to know much better.
So while there’s a case to be made that history’s place in general education has actually grown in some respects, the decline in majors is indeed troubling. I want to think that it’s a reversible trend — after all, history’s relative lack of popularity in the 1950s and 1980s gave way to growth in the 1960s and 1990s — but Steinhauer’s point about diversity is important here. Among the other reasons we should be concerned by the relative homogeneity of history majors, it suggests that our discipline might continue to struggle as the college population becomes more diverse.
I’m not sure our current “period of spotlight” can change this trend, but like Steinhauer, I think it means that we need to “put forth as diverse a set of faces and voices as we can. Let’s ensure that minorities see historians not solely of one race, one gender, one religion and one socioeconomic background, but many.”