Shadows of History

The history of western history, as an intellectual institution, leads to a series of questions that, if faced honestly, deserve to be answered.  In my musings on the subject I’ve arrived at 4 points that need to be addressed in teaching and scholarship.  It should be noted that postcolonial critique and multiculturalism should largely be credited with raising these points.

1)  Nationalism: the role of history in the legitimization of the nation is well-documented.  Historians provided coalescing diversity-free narratives of the formation of the modern nation-state which served as a source of national identity and “pride.”  Ideologically, these narratives can be said to secure various required aspects.  In Europe, historians played a more central role in this project than in the US.  According to Professor Donna Gabaccia of North Carolina University, the “expertise” of the social sciences were more helpful to differentiate racial differences (particularly anthropology and sociology in my opinion).  In the case of the US, these “racial sciences” and historical narratives served to rationalize both the oppression of people of color (past and present) and Manifest Destiny.  In the US and Europe, it paved the way for future colonialism and imperialism.  Of course, the nation-state has been the site of great advances in human rights, as Michael Walzer, co-editor if Dissent, argues.

2)  Propaganda of WWI and II: it is widely known that both World Wars created philosophical crises for much of the West.  From Erich Maria Remarque to Rothko, the sweep of change was massive.  History was no different.  WWI inaugurated as first wave of relativism and a questioning of objectivity—a thing history was in critical need of.  WWII furthered these questions: historians, some historians, along with many others began to question oppression of various kinds.  However, in the lead up to and the execution of both wars, historians went along as sheep just as the media did in the lead up to the US wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.  For a more elegant discussion of this see Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession.

3)  Rationalizing imperialism/colonialism and economic liberalism via Modernization theory and exceptionalism: much of this is clearly intertwined with the above two.  The “noble dream” of objectivity, in my estimation, is largely responsible, in history, for quiet acquiescence of imperialism.  Many historical narratives cast the past as inevitable, because to raise serious questions of the system as it already happened (for historians are largely only allowed to comment on “the past”) was immediately cast a non-objective, as relativist of the worst brand.  History too often casts the course of world events as natural outgrowths of inevitable systems: economic liberalism, Modernization theory and “development” (Western Civilization as the greatest driving force of history and the world), inequality.  This accomplishment is what Žižek terms “ideology par excellence.”

4)  Race, class, gender, and sexuality: these issues are clearly touched on above.  Once again objectivity is central.  Further, history is one of the prime locations where irrational racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist assumptions can be challenged by simply teaching that the way things are today are not inevitable because they have not always been this way.  The ideology par excellence must be rejected.  We can change things, because we have in the past.

The ultimate irony is that history, often a central contributor to these problematic theories and narratives, remains one of the premier sites for debasing them.

And while these issues have been addressed in a variety of locations and ways (from Foucault to Edward Said to Peter Novick) the trends of the past still clearly affect today’s world.  See the Texas board of education for example.  However, and this is the big however, the teaching of history, in practice and in the classroom, is completely silent on these accounts.  It still presents itself as that “noble dream” achieved: an objective, non-interested, neutral discipline whereby the truth and fact can be and have been reached.

Rather, as James Loewen argues in Lies My Teacher Told Me we should present history as a site or discourse of great contentions where some of the most important issues of the world are up for grabs.  After all, while history is most often a discipline that borrows from other fields (economics, sociology, political science, etc), much is to be gained from historicizing the fields borrowed from—if the above questions are addressed honestly.

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