Reading History and Remembering the Past
Robert A. Gross, April 2005
From the Viewpoints column of the April 2005 Perspectives
Editor's Note: The following essay is a revised version of a talk the author delivered in April 2004 at the Prize Day ceremony of the University of Connecticut. The complete text of the talk has been published in the newsletter of the university's history department.
Most British politics has turned into contemporary history," wrote a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, and the same is true for the United States. Our public debates center on the particular—the immediate causes of the Iraq war, for example, on how and why the Bush administration led us into the conflict. But they also focus on the larger questions about the role of the United States in the wider world. How did we get so entangled in the Middle East? What forces gave rise to radical Islam and made us the prime target of its jihad against the West? How, in turn, does American culture shape our responses to the new threats? These questions are fundamentally historical in character, obliging all of us to become students of the past, like it or not. "We are all historians now," noted the Guardian writer. "We have joined the ranks of those who sort out the political, economic and social causes that lie behind great turning-points."1
Such a sentiment is uncommon in American politics, for all our invocations of Founding Fathers on ceremonial occasions. Elections, we are told by campaign consultants, are about the future, not the past. Perhaps for that reason, President Bush concentrates on the here-and-now and plans for the days and months ahead. How will history judge his decision to go to war in Iraq, the journalist Bob Woodward recently asked him. "History. We don't know," the president replied. "We'll all be dead."2 Yet, even those who profess indifference to history make assumptions about it. Everything changed on September 11, 2001, press and politicians told us. We had entered a new era of world history. In his speech to Congress nine days after the attacks, President Bush offered an answer to the question on everybody's mind:
Americans are asking, "Why do they hate us?"
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.3
This formulation sets our struggle on an abstract plane, with the United States engaged in a fight for universal values of freedom. Though it makes no reference to history, it invokes a familiar theme, deeply rooted in our past and resting on long-held assumptions about American identity and purpose—assumptions with a powerful emotional pull. No wonder that speech drew near-unanimous praise in the aftermath of the 9/11 shock.
Seldom do we go to politicians for history lessons. Interpreting the past is the professional responsibility of historians. How effective have the historians been in preparing us to comprehend our current crisis and to see our society in the broad context of time and place? Making sense of our lives involves both reading history and remembering the past. To what extent does the one inform the other and with what consequences?
My starting point is curricular preferences. Some 85 percent of prospective majors in the history department at the University of Connecticut declare their principal area of interest to be U.S. history (10 percent opt for ancient history, 5 percent for modern European history). As it turns out, that preference is itself highly selective: World War II tops the agenda, followed by the Civil War. The emphasis is understandable. These episodes in the past figure prominently in the popular media, especially on the History Channel. They capture moments when Americans were caught up in massive, military struggles to shape the future of the nation, and despite the terrible losses they entailed, the conflicts are seen by many, in retrospect, as "good wars."
But no one can make a major out of studying only the recent United States. As a discipline, history aspires to cosmopolitanism, bringing all parts of the world within its domain. Are students broadened by the experience? To judge from the report of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, not all that much.4 Doctoral students in history are as fixated on the United States as undergraduates. During the 1990s, the profession was extending its reach and exploding with new topics. Even so, American history continues to dominate the field. More than half (54 percent) of all PhDs in history focus on the United States, chiefly in the 20th century. This figure represents a surprising change from the 1950s, a period often derided for parochialism. In that decade, fewer than half (45 percent) of all doctorates in history were in the U.S. field. The 1990s were marked, it would seem, by a new enthusiasm for "transnationalism." Attuned to the relentless advance of globalization in that go-go decade, Americanists acquired a heightened awareness of the interconnections between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Nation-states, it is argued, do not control their own destinies, nor do they dictate the consciousness of their subjects. They operate in a world of fluid borders, where goods, ideas, and people flow constantly across once–sovereign space. This outlook is potentially transformative; linking developments within America to international influences, it challenges our intellectual isolationism. But in the aftermath of September 11, it is chastening to open two major collections of essays conceived during the transnational euphoria of the 1990s and published in 2002. One volume considers The Futures of American Studies in an antinationalist spirit. The other sets out to "rethink American history in a global age." Neither has much to say to America in the post-9/11 world. Consult the indexes: no entry for Middle East, a single one for Iraq ("sanctions"), nothing about terrorism. So preoccupied were these scholars with challenging American exceptionalism and removing our nationalist blinders that they never noticed the forces of international terrorism gathering on the transnational horizon.5
The collective memory of American historians is thus as partial as their fellow citizens'. We, too, recall the past that suits us and ignore the rest. On what grounds, then, do we presume to intervene in public debates about the current crisis? Not many of us can claim expertise in the history of U.S. foreign policy, fewer still on Islam, Iraq, or the Middle East. We are as dependent as everyone else on journalism and on specialists in these and many other areas. Even so, the critical practices of historians provide essential tools for taking the measure of our urgent times. Are we really living in a new age, as so many declared after 9/11? If we step back from the moment and view the rhetoric of press and politicians in long perspective, the present assumes a reassuring aspect of déjà vu. The historical record is replete with pronouncements of the end of one age and the birth of another. To Protestant propagandists of the 16th century, the printing press promised to usher in the millennium; to visionaries of the Internet in the 20th, utopia awaited on the electronic frontier. Unsettled by the advance of factories and the growth of cities, Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic conjured up their anxieties in the symbol of the railroad relentlessly invading the countryside and proclaiming its triumph with a piercing whistle. Henry Adams portrayed the sense of historical dislocation vividly, as he looked back over his life and recalled the technological changes at hand in 1844, when he was a boy of six:
. . . the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created. He and his eighteenth-century, troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment, by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency.6
Such dramatic pronouncements capture an emotional truth; in Adams's retrospect, historians discern the felt experience of living through dramatic change. But assertions of turning points can also serve as arguments with a purpose, designed to advance a political agenda. For Thomas Paine, the clash of arms between the colonists and the King's men at Lexington and Concord opened "a new era for politics": "All plans, proposals, &c. prior to the nineteenth of April . . . are like the almanacks of the last year; which tho' proper then, are superceded and useless now."7 No matter that many in the Middle Colonies were loath to break with the Crown. Paine's "new era" sealed the case for independence.
But old habits die hard. Enthusiasts of change often carry heavy baggage into the new age. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out this syndrome long ago. To the radicals of the French Revolution, religion was superstition and the Church a corrupt bastion of privilege. Overthrowing the priests, the revolutionaries took reason for their guide. But they could not escape the emotional burden of the past. In secular ideals they invested spiritual passions and pursued millennial dreams. "Of this passionate idealism was born what was in fact a new religion" of reason, aspiring to "nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race."8
These few examples from the past encourage us to take a skeptical approach to proclamations of "new eras" by our contemporaries. It is one thing for historians to discern great moments of transition in the life of a society; we have the advantage of hindsight. It is quite another for those living through a period as confusing and tumultuous as our own to foresee the end of the journey. In the 1990s, Francis Fukayama prophesied that with the triumph of liberalism over Communism, we had reached "the end of history." His fame was transient. Now the pundits attend to Samuel Huntington's dire account of the "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam.
Instead of paying attention to such prophesies, we should abandon the seductive rhetoric of "old" and "new" and seek out continuities and connections across time. With such an approach, we are far better equipped to assess the crises of the contemporary world. To a historian with a long view, the remarkable thing about the American response to 9/11 is its familiarity. In the face of the horrific attack, we asked with the American president, "Why do they hate us?" That question is as much a cry from the heart as a search for answers. It expresses a sense of incomprehension and incredulity: how could a nation unique in world history, a nation born in colonial rebellion against imperial rule, founded on liberty and self-government, attracting millions of immigrants with its promise of opportunity, and prospering on the energies and talents of a free people, evoke such murderous anger? For all his seeming indifference to history, President Bush shares those sentiments, and he has put them into action with all the fervor of Woodrow Wilson. Whether they suit the situation we must all decide.
Can history, then, speak to our present circumstances? It can do so, I mean to suggest, only if we escape our thrall to the recent past, get outside our country, and take a long view of politics, society, and culture. Such an enterprise not only summons us to employ more diligently the critical skills, the historical imagination, and the devotion to excellence that should characterize historians, it also requires us to challenge the ethnocentrism of Americans.
—Robert Gross is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut.
4. Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, Colin Palmer, and the AHA Committee on Graduate Education, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press for the American Historical Association, 2004), 54–58.
5. Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, eds., The Futures of American Studies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002); Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), quotation, 291.