Finding a New “Vocation” for Historians
Historians need not look far these days for reason to spiral into existential crisis. The STEM steamroller, the evaporation of history majors, the shuttering of liberal arts colleges, and the devaluing of non-vocational education as represented by the evisceration of humanities programs all raise the question: “What are history professors for, anyway?” The rise of “Make America Great Again”—as a campaign slogan and a social movement—adds insult to injury: one little phrase seems to nullify decades of hard-won revisionist Americanist scholarship premised on the conviction that histories of non-white, non-male, non-Christian peoples matter, too.
Dogged by the question of my professional utility, an anxiety clearly exacerbated by my solidly middle-aged status, I started playing a sort of internal cocktail-party game at conferences: If this speaker had a different, more “useful” vocation, what would she be? I did the same with books on my shelves. I was surprised how easily historians of early America (like me) could be sorted by our vocational likenesses: Some are forensic pathologists (historians of settler colonialism), charting the structural roots of disease in our national childhood. Others are more like Freudian analysts (literature scholars), plumbing the depths of the American psyche, exposing the dangerous national myths with the aim of dislodging them by bringing them into the light. In a different vein are the intrepid pathbreakers (scholars of Native American and indigenous studies), developing new methods to study previously neglected realms. All of these fields, including women’s studies, Native American studies, African American studies, and other fields began with a hope that deconstructing old myths and incorporating new content would bring about a better future.
Library shelves are brimming with histories of America’s richly complex past, and yet the notion of America as white and Christian has stubbornly refused to dissipate. Indeed, proponents of American exceptionalism today—including Fox News pundits, David Barton, Mike Huckabee, and the Texas State Board of Education—are not simply unthinking perpetuators of inherited tradition; they are reactionaries who want to undo the work of two generations of historians through textbook elisions and fundamentalist assertions of “alternative facts” that explicitly and consciously deny what the revisionist revolution accomplished.
Library shelves are brimming with histories of America’s richly complex past, and yet the notion of America as white and Christian has stubbornly refused to dissipate.
The ideological and religious right have been phenomenally successful in laying claim to the myths and symbols of America, distorting them to the point of caricature. Historical scholarship now draws vicious fire from pundits on the right who see campuses as hotbeds of anti-American, liberal orthodoxy, even as it has achieved wide dissemination among the cultural left. But, informed by historians’ efforts at deconstructing American myths, some quarters of the left veer into a dystopian iconoclasm. This first crystalized for me as I followed reactions to the immigrant family separation crisis on social media last summer. Proclamations of “This is not who we are” from one quarter of the left were quickly met with reminders of slavery, Indian boarding schools, Japanese concentration camps: “This is exactly who we’ve always been!”
Here is the problem: meeting MAGA fundamentalism with dystopian iconoclasm only affirms the central claim of today’s right wing: that America’s soul is white and Christian, disagreeing only over whether that is cause for celebration or lament. Yet iconoclasts rarely persuade the iconophiles. Pathologists do not cure cancer, and prosecuting attorneys do not rehabilitate the criminal. It is not their job. Which brings me back to the question, in the context of American civic life: What are we history professors for?
If we want to impeach the MAGA movement’s brand of American nationalism, we need to offer something in its stead, but for many of us this feels heretical. Nationalist histories have been tightly bound to a whitewashed American exceptionalism, underwriting colonialism and empire, so the obvious choice was to not write nationalist histories. However, removing ourselves from dialogue about American ideals has not eliminated the desire of our publics for compelling national myths and symbols. Many of us have a vision of what a more just America would look like, but we shy away from painting that vision for our students—often, I suspect, because we are agnostics or even atheists when it comes to America and because we actively reject the triumphalist boosterism of earlier historians and current nationalists.
But what if we choose a different professional model? What if we envision our work as prophetic preachers of an American civil religion? This doesn’t require dramatic change, but simply a reframing of our thinking about what we’re already doing. Our lecterns are our pulpit and our lectures sermons, with the power to make congregants squirm in their pews at our country’s many sins, while also inspiring them with a vision of a better, more American America. Students are hungry, I believe, for exactly this sense of possibility. As the would-be keepers of America’s past, we owe it to our parishioners—our students—to help them imagine a future. Right now, I fear we often leave them straitjacketed by history. We dangle them over the pit of an American hellscape like Jonathan Edwards’s spider and preach of the indelible mark of our nation’s original sins, but we fail to offer the accompanying sermon that holds out hope of salvation.
More than a decade ago, Barack Obama was elected on the hope that we could become a different America. The 2016 election was felt by many as a violent thunderclap that revealed those hopes as tragically naive, while confirming for others what they had long experienced to be true. There is plenty of evidence to justify the hopeless view that America’s history is stamped at every turn by oppression. But the victims of that oppression are also American. Many died, and many had the horizons of their lives tragically circumscribed in countless cruel ways. America cannot un-become the genocide, the slavery, the oppression, the territorial conquest of our history unless we reconstitute American identity with alternatives. We should reject the sort of originalist thinking in history that we decry in the realm of law and religion. So how do we give meaning to these painful histories as we construct our narratives about who or what America was, is, and might become?
If we want to impeach the MAGA movement’s brand of American nationalism, we need to offer something in its stead, but for many of us this feels heretical.
The path to becoming a different America is to affirm that those who endured and survived assaults on their very existence, that they, too, are America. And if we see their stories as deeply and profoundly and humanely American, rather than circumscribing their existence to the experience as victims of the real America, then perhaps we can inspire our students with a passion to become America. We historian-preachers might bend our efforts toward re-visioning the right-hand side of the hyphen—African American, Native American—insisting that the particular experiences on the left-hand side are what collectively constitute the right side: American. We will imagine ourselves more richly as a nation if we can do this.
Our national conversion narrative must acknowledge our sins, but we should not wallow in our longing for a pre-lapsarian America. Thanks to the excellent work of generations of scholars, we now know about the warp and weft of daily lives of many more people who have lived in this land than we once did. If we want to create a different future, I think we need to shift the angle of our storytelling pens. While many Native Americans, for example, have understandably abandoned any hope that nation-states are capable of transcending the legacy of empire and genocide, focusing their energies on realizing sovereignty, others have articulated an inspiring vision of America absent the willful naivete of American exceptionalism. These visionaries have imagined a different America and a different way of being American, even though their voices were often drowned out or suppressed or denied legitimacy. Nonetheless, William Apess, Frederick Douglass, or James Baldwin and Martin Luther King have been the prophets of an American civic theology: They refused to cede their country to the forces that would exclude them. Their experiences bestowed on them a clear understanding of America’s failings, yet they painted a vision of a future America that might do better.
This is not a call to “get over” the wrongs of the past. Nor is it a project that will ever be checked off as complete. I was reminded of exactly this as I read David Treuer’s brilliantly humane new book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (Riverhead, 2019), in which he reminds his readers, Native and non-, that after Wounded Knee, “Indians lived on, as more than ghosts, as more than the relics of a once happy people. We lived on increasingly invested in and changed by—and in turn doing our best to change—the American character.”
I wish I could say I carry within me a faith or certainty about America’s goodness. I don’t. Humans are as good and horrible as they’ve always been. As much as the “post-fact” world of social media inspires us to double down on the cold hard facts of history, the myths and symbols of America are important. And sitting out the battle for them is no longer tenable.
Rachel Wheeler is associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She is co-author, with Sarah Eyerly, of “Singing Box 331: Re-Sounding Eighteenth-Century Mohican Hymns,” forthcoming in The William and Mary Quarterly. She tweets infrequently at @rmwheelz.
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