On The History Manifesto
To the Editor:
Issues of accuracy and propriety in Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto were addressed in the April 2015 AHR. Also troubling is their “call to arms,” accusing historians of “inward-looking retreat from ... contemporary global issues, ... culminat[ing] in a sense of practical irrelevance, of the historian as astronomer in a high tower.”
“To say of a man that he lives in an ivory tower,” commented art historian Erwin Panofsky 50 years ago, “combines the stigma of egocentric self-isolation (on account of the tower) with that of snobbery (on account of the ivory) and dreamy inefficiency (on account of both).” But the tower is also a traditional watchtower, enabling explorers of the past to warn the embattled below. Historians are of greater service aloft than when they descend to fix the wicked world.
We are all present-minded, bound to see the past through present lenses and causes. But to demand that historians use the past in order to grapple with contemporary issues is not just present-minded but present-blinded. Such a demand anachronizes the past into propaganda. Invoking a “moral crisis” to topple the historian from the tower into the trenches makes the past a cudgel for belaboring the present. Giving up the telescope for the truncheon subverts the historian’s essential task: to explore and convey the daunting otherness of the past, and to show how, as much by chance as by choice, it has led to our ongoing present.
The History Manifesto’s very title belies our calling. Historians should eschew manifestos. To issue proclamations and thunder denunciations is the rhetoric of prelates and politicians. Our task is not to moralize or preach but to discern and reveal—to make manifest. To illumine the past, we aim to delight or dismay rather than rebuke or exhort.
University College London
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