Publication Date

April 1, 1996

Readers Respond to "The Last Eurocentric Generation"

To the Editor:

As a member (evidently) of the "last Eurocentric generation" and a specialist in German history, I read with interest Caroline Walker Bynum's reflections on her sabbatical year in Berlin in the February issue. While I am in sympathy with most of what she observes, one or two points might have been more finely detailed.

The generational identity so many of us feel with Germany, and particularly Berlin, draws from more, I believe, than the undeniable centrality of the World War II experience in our upbringing and our training as historians. Public culture in Berlin is not only "harsh and censorious"; it is also intensely political. Every choice one makes—at least among academics, intellectuals, artists, activists, and aspirants thereto—is a political act: which friends, which bar, which newspaper, which beer, which brand of cigarettes, where one keeps a flat, what clothes (interesting when the universal mandate is head-to-toe black). For those of us who were in college or graduate school in the 1960s, a social and intellectual existence so intensely politicized was formative, even more perhaps than the lecture hall and the seminar room. Indeed, that's the rap laid on us now, "tenured radicals," etc. The instant sense of connection I feel the moment my plane sets down at Tegel is precisely this return to a culture where ideas, convictions, and loyalties matter; in such notable contrast to the United States, even on college campuses, even in academic departments and faculty lounges. This is hardly to say that ideology—not quite the same as politics—is not almost universally prevalent in contemporary American academic life, or in so much of what passes for American culture. But the "classical" politics of the sixties—or for that matter of the thirties—are to be found elsewhere. Berlin is one of those places, in combination, of course, with every cutting-edge nineties cultural invention and artifact one could wish. Hence its irresistibility; or to put it another way, Berlin is more New York than New York.

There's something else, I think, as well. Every good historian, I would contend, carries within him- or herself more than a trace of the archaeologist and the anthropologist. For the generation of historians Professor Bynum has identified, Berlin is the 20th century’s archaeological center. (And, to continue the New York analogy, dig they must. What they find at Potsdamer Platz or around the Reichstag, for example, is problematical.) Many will dispute this, of course, and no one can take particular comfort or satisfaction from it. Yet it is in Berlin, for those who grew up and got their training as and when Professor Bynum and I did, where the significance, the meaning of at least the first half of the 20th century, is most profoundly felt. Exactly because so much—and so many—are gone, Berlin remains apart from the other great centers of European politics, diplomacy, and culture; Bertolt Brecht's "heap of rubble next to Potsdam." We don't visit Berlin to see history (the Wall itself is scarcely anywhere to be seen), even to remember history—although the monuments and the markers proliferate, or replace one another, at a dizzying pace. In Berlin we are compelled (as James E. Young reminds us in The Texture of Memory) to imagine history, to struggle to extrapolate from some fragment, or from nothing at all, what once was or once happened. For a historian or for anyone historically minded, and not only from the last Eurocentric generation, Berlin will always be the ultimate challenge. I suspect that the real reason Professor Bynum felt, and continues to feel, her year there so strongly is because we all became historians in the first place for the challenge.

James J. Ward
Cedar Crest College

To the Editor:

I have just read the President's Desk piece in the February Perspectives and am moved to write concerning Professor Bynum’s remark about the “more global history our children will inherit.”

Professor Bynum, quite understandably, is mainly concerned with the European Middle Ages, her own field, and would find approaches such as Janet Abu-Lughod's world systems of especial interest. She mentions Geyer and Bright's article, however, as what she has in mind in regard to global history, and it is that that prompts me to call to her attention, as she presides over the AHA, another version of global history, which some of my colleagues (among them, Raymond Grew and Carol Gluck) and I are seeking to advance as an initiative. Indeed, we presented a session in Atlanta entitled "Global History: A New Perspective." Aside from the papers from that session, perhaps the easiest way to see what we are about is to glance at the volume, Conceptualizing Global History, edited by Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens, which is the first volume in a series published by Westview Press (the second, on global history and migrations, is now at the publisher, and two more are in the works).

Bruce Mazlish
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

To the Editor:

Caroline Bynum's belief that hers is "the last Eurocentric generation" is certainly challenged by the relentless Eurocentrism of Anthony Rhinelander's article on teaching historiography at the undergraduate level. (See the February 1996 issue of Perspectives.) While I applaud and share Rhinelander’s enthusiasm for introducing undergraduates to the varieties of historical representation, the topics and examples he references urgently require amendment. The syllabus should include examples of historiography from other traditions—traditional China, Islam, Africa, Hindu, Native American—which may have similar forms but often build on different assumptions. Moreover, the “great” examples of historical writing should be compared to the types of representation through which the majority of the world’s people understand their past. These include oral history and oral tradition, drama, historical fiction, popular historical writing, museums (like those profiled by Nigel Worden in the February 1996 Perspectives cover story on South Africa), film and television, and today even the World Wide Web.

In Western Michigan's undergraduate historiography class students examine, among other issues, how the oral traditions of the Aztecs and of Mali were transformed by being written down in alien languages and historiographical frameworks. This raises the contemporary question posed by women and minorities, "Whose history is this?" The same question arises when students are asked how they, as possible museum curators, would deal with a community group objecting to their planned exhibit of local ethnic history. We study a video documentary, Sins of Our Mothers, about an alleged scandal in 19th-century New England to see how the video crew searches the local archives, conducts on-camera interviews, and s reenactments to make its version of events seem vivid and plausible. A research paper requires students to compare academic, popular, fictional, oral, and video or film versions of a typical historical event or issue. In this way I hope to prepare them for the post-Eurocentric and multimedia forms of history they will encounter both as citizens in the world and as teachers of the next generation.

Dale H. Porter
Western Michigan University

To the Editor:

Caroline Walker Bynum's essay on “The Last Eurocentric Generation” makes a cogent and timely appeal for the exploration of global historical perspectives, and I would like to draw attention to the efforts of the World History Association (WHA) to encourage development of global approaches to the past. Founded in 1982 to promote teaching and research on world history, the WHA organizes regional, national, and international conferences on global historical themes, and it sponsors two publications, the World History Bulletin and the Journal of World History. The World History Bulletin serves as the WHA newsletter and publishes syllabuses, book reviews, reports on conferences, teaching ideas, and essays on pedagogical themes.

Meanwhile, the Journal of World History provides a forum for the kind of comparative, cross-cultural, and systematic study that Bynum’s essay envisions. The journal reflects historians’ increased interest in the analysis of processes that transcend national boundaries-population movements, climatic changes, transfers of technology, the spread of infectious and contagious diseases, imperial expansion, long-distance trade, and the spread of belief and value systems. The Journal of World History encourages systematic research and reflection on these and other global themes that historians have increasingly begun to study.

Bynum's call for the elaboration of global historical perspectives represents an imaginative and entirely appropriate response to the challenge of an interdependent world. Through its programs and publications, the World History Association seeks to advance the dialogue between past and present by encouraging precisely the kind of research and reflection that Bynum has placed on the agenda of professional historians.

Jerry H. Bentley
University of Hawaii

Editor's Note: The World History Association is an affiliate of the AHA.

To the Editor:

It was a pleasure to read Professor Bynum's essay in the February issue of Perspectives, laying out her sense of the changing historical guard and the implications this has for historians. Perhaps it is because, I, too, am of that "last Eurocentric generation" or perhaps it is because its central concerns—World War II, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust—have largely shaped my own historical research that I find myself reluctant to accept Professor Bynum's conclusion—namely, that our job now is to help shift the focus of inquiry elsewhere.

It seems to me that historians should mediate between past and present, sifting through and selecting what is both interesting and important from the materials available to us, and then presenting this intelligibly to students and the larger public so that they can make better sense of who they are and how they have arrived at this particular moment in time. What we select to study, teach, or write about should be neither trivial nor "irrelevant," but it should be left to our professional judgment and expertise to determine what is, and what is not. If we become self-indulgently involved with issues that have no meaningful resonance in today's world, then we have failed to meet our responsibility as historians. On the other hand, we would be equally guilty if we were to cede the definition of "meaningful" and "important" to those who, perhaps unknowingly/look to us for guidance and insight.

To be more specific, might one not argue that it was the eagerness of so many Europeans (exempting, perhaps, the Germans) to bury the lessons learned the hard way during World War II that permitted the more recent barbarities in Bosnia to continue for as long as they did? Surely, American historians can take little comfort, as Professor Bynum points out, in the widespread ignorance in this country concerning both conflicts. Having forgotten one, and turned away from the other, might we not very likely—given this trend—decide the next war in Europe to be marginal to our "global" interests, with catastrophic consequences for all?

Today's generation may, indeed, have other preoccupations, reflecting its more diverse constitution. But will it be well served by historians if we simply allow its agenda to chart the territory for critical investigation? Perhaps one could argue just the opposite: that, as the world (or at least the United States) undergoes this dramatic ethnic and cultural shift, becoming rightly more attuned to the realities of many previously neglected parts of the planet, it becomes even more important for the historians to step forward as mediators, not just between past and present, but between cultures as well. Professor Bynum says as much in her essay when she points out how her own teaching of medieval Europe has become more "nuanced" through comparison to contemporaneous civilizations. It seems to me that this should hold as well for modern European history: the Holocaust husbands truths we have yet to fathom or admit to ourselves, and it is only by diving further into its sordid depths that we stand a chance of anticipating and heading off tomorrow's Srebrenica.

The history of Europe, in other words, is still very much alive, still very important, and not just to the people of Paris or Belgrade. We must, somehow, knit them closer together and to the people oceans away, for whom Adolf Hitler is today less relevant than Madonna. For today, what affects one affects all. Our challenge is to learn our common history. Otherwise, we will simply exchange a Eurocentric preoccupation for ones that are even more parochial and circumscribed. I don't believe that course would, in the end, serve our children's generation well.

John V. H. Dippel
Piermont, New York

To the Editor:

I was very taken by Caroline Bynum's piece in the latest Perspectives, especially the way she felt “at home” in Berlin, though very much a stranger to Germany. I too belong to what you call the last Eurocentric generation. In some very real sense those Americans who were born just before or during the Second World War (my father also donned an air-raid warden’s helmet) were also the first Eurocentric generation. But now that the Europeans are reexamining their place in the world, we have to reexamine our relationship to them and their pasts.

It goes without saying that I like the agenda Bynum has set for her presidency. We need to rethink field and period boundaries. I think this would be a good time to have more annual meeting sessions of a comparative kind, but one must avoid this being merely supplemental. These discussions must aim not just at supplementing but at transforming the traditional fields. We know what happened when women's history was treated as a supplement. That allowed the rest of the profession to go about its business as usual. I hope Bynum can work out a way so that what she calls globalization will not be just another add-on, tolerated but largely ignored.

John Gillis
Rutgers University

To the Editor:

In her article, "The Last Eurocentric Generation," AHA President-Elect Caroline Walker Bynum, writing of a recent stay in Berlin, describes "the public culture in Germany" as "harsh and censorious." She added that the Germans themselves spend their lives in the midst of a "terrifying xenophobia," which they often fail to see."

In my view, these judgments themselves are highly harsh and censorious. As a private person, Professor Bynum is, of course, entitled to her opinions, biased and self-righteous though they may be. But here she is speaking ex officio, as president of the American Historical Association, in a section of the AHA's official newsletter entitled "President's Desk."

Such judgments amount to gratuitous censure by the highest elected American historian of a friendly state and culture. In long years of AHA membership I cannot think of a comparable set of utterances from an AHA president. It is extremely unlikely that Professor Bynum's counterparts in Germany would render analogous ex officio judgments, although their views as private citizens on public culture in the Unite States might well in some respects—regarding capital punishment, for example, or policy toward the poor—be less than complimentary.

Let me, therefore, register strong protest at Professor Bynum's remarks, which are in my view, quite unprofessional. I hope that, during the remainder of her term in office, she will disassociate the expression of her personal views on other countries’ public cultures from the American Historical Association.

William W. Hagen
University of California at Davis

President Bynum's Response:

Professor Hagen misunderstood me. My essay was autobiographical. When I contrasted the "harshness" of Berlin to the "rudeness" of New York, I was pointing out that behind the differences in public culture I experienced, I found deep similarity of concern, based on the fact that Germans of my generation were wrestling with the same moral issues that had shaped my life.

Affiliated Society Appreciates Recognition

To the Editor:

On behalf of the Oral History Association, I want to thank AHA President Caroline Walker Bynum for the recognition that we affiliates received at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. The exhibit tables offered us a nice opportunity to share information about our association with conference attendees. We were also pleased with the success of the oral history workshop that we sponsored on "doing oral history for your own research."

I also appreciated the session in which Professor Bynum and Sandria Freitag reported to the representatives of the various affiliates. I hope that similar meetings will be held in the future. My only suggestion is that each of the representatives might be called upon to introduce themselves and their organizations briefly and that a list of all the affiliates be provided.

Noting Professor Bynum's own affiliation, let me add that we oral historians especially value Columbia University's pioneering contributions to our field. The modem oral history movement, which is now world-wide, would not have been possible without the initiatives and continuing work of Columbia's Oral History Research Office.

Anne G. Ritchie
Oral History Association

Search Committees Asked to Notify Candidates Promptly

To the Editor:

The annual job search for faculty positions has come and gone, but most applicants wouldn't really know that their quest for employment is over for this year. Search committees send rejections out only several months after the AHA meeting, if they send them at all. This delay or failure signifies not only inefficiency, but also rudeness, for it forces scores of candidates to put their plans for late December and early January on hold while they wait in vain for the last-minute word from a university that would justify the expense of traveling to the convention.

Would it be so difficult for faculty search committees to send out rejections promptly? Failing this logistical feat, would it be possible for committees to publicize their timetables in one of two ways? Either faculties could agree across the board that their searches would be over by, say, December 15, and a candidate who had not heard by then could safely assume rejection, or individual committees could enclose information about their cutoff dates in the letters they send to confirm application receipt and gather affirmative action information. Some schools already take this latter approach, and apparently do not find that it places too much pressure upon the committee members. Such an approach would add a touch of rationality and dignity to an unpleasant process.

Jeff Moran
Harvard University

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