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The President's Corner | The Future of History | What is Globalization? | The Future of the Past

March 2000

Volume I, Number 2

by President Eugene Genovese

Among the endless current absurdities, spiced with flagrant mendacity, few match the wonderful assertion that a focus on “the people” rather than on elites has emerged from the Left and necessarily serves its ideological purposes. Those who long ago demanded the integration of social history into political, intellectual, diplomatic, and military history intended to deepen, not replace, those standard subjects. They properly defended the centrality of politics, which cannot be understood without knowledge of the exigencies of everyday life. They were right, but that is only half the story. From Herodotus to Gibbon, the great historians paid attention to the social and cultural conditions and political influence of the lower and middle classes. Gibbon’s illuminating if acerbic account of the rise of Christianity and its impact on the Roman Empire alone belies the droll notion of exclusive concern with elites. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire provides a model for those who would trace the influence of “the people” on the most historic of shifts in political and social power.
00000Justice to the giants on whose shoulders we stand is, however, not the primary issue. The historical profession has solemnly assumed that social history and the study of popular culture must necessarily serve particular political and ideological interests. Allegedly, they are the creations and handmaidens of the Left, much as political, intellectual, diplomatic, and military history have been the creation and handmaidens of the Right. How anyone could be dumb enough to think that only leftwingers could write labor, women’s, and Afro-American history honestly and well defies imagination. And yet, so deeply has this curious notion pervaded the profession that we find precious few conservatives who work on these subjects and find a great many who condemn them out-of-hand. The fault cannot be laid wholly on the latter-day McCarthyites who have closed the doors of, say, women’s studies programs to those who reject feminist ideology. The Right has done its best to perpetuate the myth of inherent leftwing bias in the subject matter, and it has, if inadvertently, thereby abetted it.
00000The early demands for programs in Afro-American studies, women’s studies, and other subjects had a rational and constructive foundation. The virtual exclusion of blacks and women from the curricula meant, first and foremost, a debilitating distortion of history, and it cried out for correction. But because the demand came from people perceived—not always fairly —as wanting to transform campuses into ideological training schools, they met a sullen opposition that failed to distinguish the justice of the demands from the effort of factionalists to build a Trojan horse for a factional coup d’état. University administrations yielded to the political pressures with no discernible concern for academic freedom or academic standards. And by failing to hold the new subject matter to academic standards, administrations treated them with contempt and perpetuated the “racism” and “sexism” they professed to oppose. What would they have done if they had had to face counter-pressure from those who agreed on the necessity for reform and insisted on their right to participate? Suppose, instead of casting anathema and leaving the field open to campus politicians, those, whether from Left, Center, or Right, who uphold academic standards and academic freedom had demanded that all programs promote genuine diversity and become places of ideological contention in which everyone’s pet theories could be subject to stern criticism?
00000We have paid a huge and steadily mounting price for our failure to wage a principled struggle. The best work in Afro-American history deserves respect and careful attention from all historians—not just historians of the United States—but too often those who should know better ignore it or reject it without bothering to study it. Simultaneously, the ghettoization of programs and subject matter spares the worst and most ideologically driven work the intense and deserved criticism. The Historical Society has a special responsibility to set an example of how these subjects must be pursued—in frank, open exchanges among those who agree that all theories are hypotheses subject to empirical verification.
00000The fear that certain subjects contain an inherent bias to the Left (or Right) should make us laugh, but we had better be careful. Since laughter contributes to a hostile atmosphere for those incapable of holding their own in debate, it may well sentence us to those “awareness seminars” which nicely replicate the happy totalitarian practice of referring dissidents to psychiatrists. Still, historians of the Old South, among others, have little choice. Is an insistence on a “history of the people” a left-wing ploy? If so, the slaveholders qualified as extreme leftists, for, perhaps more strongly than any other Americans of their day, they insisted upon it. Maybe they were not too bright—but do not believe it. In any case, they went to great lengths to insist upon the rewriting of history to focus upon the common people. They did not doubt that such a focus would bolster their worldview.
00000The leaders of southern thought condemned, ever more harshly, the elitist cast of historical writing. They advocated an integrated history of society to replace the narrow focus on politics and insisted that neither great men nor mass movements in themselves determine the course of history. When they spoke of a “history of the people,” they did not counterpoise social life to politics, diplomacy, and war. Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West, probably expressed their view more concisely than they managed to do:

True history is not ‘cultural’ in the sense of anti-political. . . . It is breed history, war history, diplomatic history, the history of being-streams in the form of man and woman, family, people, estate, state, reciprocally defensive and offensive in the wave-beat of grand facts. Politics in the highest sense is life, and life is politics. Every man is willy-nilly a member of this battle-drama, as subject and as object—there is no third alternative.

00000Those on the Left who cavil at Spengler might try Antonio Gramsci: “The philosophy of every man is contained in his politics.”
00000To be sure, the proslavery theorists, who read widely and deeply in world history, agreed that great individuals have always led history-bearing groups (whole peoples, classes, armies, and parties) and that mass movements have never conquered and sustained power except under the leadership of great individuals. But when they called upon the “great men” of history, they did so in opposition to impersonal forces, to isms, to ideological constructs. Uninfected by the superficial doctrine of “history from the bottom up,” the ablest southern writers regarded the history of the “bottom” and the “top” as alternate forms of an abstract antiquarianism unless formulated in organic relation to each other.
00000The social history sought by the most aggressive proslavery theorists stressed the primacy of culture over ordinary politics and focused on its hegemonic function. Thomas Roderick Dew, a prime architect of the proslavery argument, in his lectures to seniors at the College of William and Mary on the course of Western civilization, associated himself with the “language of Guizot,” according to which “Only two great figures appear on the stage of Europe, the government and the people.” Specifically, Dew taught that the Reformation was not an accident attendant upon the personal character of Luther: “It was one of the great wants of the times—Luther merely gave expression to the feelings of the Age.” Southerners loved Samuel Johnson, and they especially applauded his remark on historical writing: “I wish to have one branch well done, and that is the history of manners of common life.” Accordingly, the proslavery intellectuals set out to demonstrate that the affairs of the common people lay at the center of historical development and that a proper understanding of their history would strengthen a conservative and specifically slaveholding worldview.
00000Consider a few examples. In assessing the progress of civilization, Joseph Cummings told the students of Emory and Henry College in 1851, “The comparison lies not between individuals but the masses”; and H. Clay Pate, a historian, called for greater attention to local history to unearth the lives of easily forgotten people and strengthen the sense of personal identity among Virginians. John Fletcher of Louisiana, in his influential Studies on Slavery, added pithily that throughout history most people have writhed in or near poverty: “It is with these lower classes we have the most to do.” Henry Augustine Washington praised Virginia’s early historians for their useful work on political history but insisted, “What we now want is a history of her people—her institutions, her social and political system—her civilization—a history of Virginia in the sense in which Guizot has written the history of France, and Macaulay the history of England.” Washington paid due respect to the greatness of George Mason and the others who established the principle of the sovereignty of the people in the constitution of Virginia, but stressed that the character of the people shaped the contributions of Mason and others. Thus, he argued, Virginia escaped the wild theorizing of men such as Sieyes and safely relied on the experience of its people. Henry Dickson chimed in, “The progress of man in civilization, his advancement in knowledge will be found as distinctly impressed upon the character of his recreations, his favorite amusements, as upon his occupations and serious pursuits.” When John Archibald Campbell of Alabama—and the United States Supreme Court—acclaimed Sismondi, Guizot, and Michelet as among “the great historical writers of France,” he especially praised them for their insights into the social conditions and changing mores that have engendered the crises and decline of great states and empires.
00000The stance assumed by the proslavery intellectuals led to a call for the application of statistical methods to unearth hidden dimensions of the history of ordinary people. George Tucker of Virginia, one of the few antebellum Americans whose work Joseph Schumpeter saluted in his magisterial History of Economic Analysis, did pioneering work in economic and historical statistics, which illuminated the contributions of women and blacks. J. D. B. DeBow presided over the Census of 1850 and devoted much of DeBow’s Review to the dissemination and interpretation of statistical data. Jacob Cardozo’s forays into econometric analysis were outstanding by the standards of his day. Henry Hughes, who preached personal servitude for the laboring classes of all races, called for careful statistical work to bolster the scientific sociology he sought to establish. To a noticeable extent, Southerners read historians and novelists, most prominently Sir Walter Scott, for their depictions of everyday life in communities, which they saw as essential to an understanding of philosophical principles and political power. The novels, literary criticism, and historical and biographical writing of William Gilmore Simms did much to illuminate the social history of South Carolina and the contributions of the Indians to it.
00000These men and others like them, including the South’s own historians, had no doubt that an honest appraisal of the history of the common people would support their conservative interpretation of history and, specifically, their commitment to slavery. Never mind whether they were right. Individually and collectively, they presented strong arguments that require empirical testing and cannot be dismissed as mere apologetics. The same may be said for the ablest exponents of the other side. Any historical method or subject matter may legitimately be interpreted to support or undermine any politics and ideology. But if so, the case for open debate among historians emerges as the case for testing the claims of every political and ideological movement. Those who actually believe what they say they believe ought to welcome that struggle as a way to establish their claims. Those who would suppress opposing viewpoints by whining about hostile atmospheres stand exposed as charlatans who cannot sustain their own arguments and do not know what they are talking about.

Eugene Genovese is president of The Historical Society.

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

00000Typically, the close of a millennium—in the measure that we may claim even vicarious experience in these matters—seems likely to prompt a range of predictions and fantasies, and the close of the second has had more in common with the close of the first than the differences between their respective levels of technological sophistication might have led one to expect. The most dramatic of late second millennial fantasies have focused upon Y2K and the probable disruptions that, in the worst-case scenario, might have exposed us to terrorist attack and reduced us to survivalist living conditions. Y2K proved a non-event, and life in the first months of the new era seems to be proceeding as mindlessly as in the last month of the old. One late second millennial speculation, which should presumably be of special concern to the members of The Historical Society, seemed to sink through the cracks as more dramatic speculations took center stage, namely, that in the final decade of the twentieth century we had reached the end of history.
00000Francis Fukuyama, who advanced this proposition, argued that we were entering an era in which history, understood in Hegel’s sense as the unfolding conflict between antagonisms—thesis and antithesis—had come to an end, giving way to a synthesis, in which “normal” life dominates everything, leaving no great story to tell. With the advantage of a few years’ hindsight, it is clear that, far from disappearing, conflict has been experiencing a rather ominous renaissance, both among states and within them. It would be a rash soul who, in the face of Kosovo, Chechnya, the Sudan, and Columbine High School, pronounced the death of history as the unfolding succession of conflicts. The world of the year 2000 and beyond shows every indication of providing us with conflict in abundance, and our real challenge more properly lies in understanding and containing it than in speculating about its imminent demise.
00000If conflict affords the indispensable raw ingredient of history, historians have scant justification for worrying about its end. But if the presence of conflict is taken to be necessary to the continuing vitality of history, we may err in assuming it to be sufficient. One of the salient characteristics of our world lies in its ability to generate an endless succession of conflicts that, arguably, are about nothing at all. From computer games to the endless rivalries of cliques and gangs, conflicts surround us, but their prevalence does not ipso facto prove that they are about anything or even that they have a point. Imagine that conflict has simply become a way of passing the time in a world so devoid of meaning as to offer no more inspiring option. Conflict as the antidote to boredom? Conflict as boredom, with boredom understood as the mind-numbing absence of conviction or purpose? Or, as Eric Hobsbawm has disquietingly suggested, conflict as the return to a barbarism proscribed by civilized societies for many centuries?
00000The prevalence of such conflict does, per se, disprove Fukuyama’s contention about the death of history, which remains a disquieting possibility. With the end of the cold war and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the dominant ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism has abated. Capitalism has triumphed virtually everywhere, even in China, where it still coexists with elements of a directed economy. Throughout much of the world, convergence is emerging as the order of the day. Even in the United States, as THS members Paul Gottfried and Martin Sklar have both argued from different perspectives, the differences between the main political parties have dwindled to insignificance.
00000Islamic fundamentalists demonstrably have no patience with convergence of this kind, grounded as it is in an expanding global free market in commodities and morals. And their resistance to its encroachment upon their people and territories may yet emerge as a world historical conflict of the first order. For the moment, however, the liberal modernizers throughout the world have yet to recognize the scattered acts of terrorism and local wars (even at their most alarming) as the new face of a concerted global struggle. From the vantage point of their unprecedented economic success, the “modern” nations tend to regard bursts of opposition to their hegemony as discrete and unrelated phenomena rather than as a slowly cohering jihad.
00000In addition to the apparent decline of significant conflict, the twentieth century has bequeathed us other reasons to worry about the death of history. High among these rank the repudiation of history as an exemplary mode of thought and, increasingly, as a fund of valuable knowledge and experience. The twentieth century has witnessed a magnitude and rate of change that are unprecedented in human experience. There are three times as many human beings on the globe at the century’s close as there were at its start. In 1900, the majority of the world’s population lived on the land and worked producing food, usually with hand tools that had changed little for centuries. Only in Britain did more than half the population live in cities, which means torn from the familiar social and moral context of rural life. As 2000 dawns, nearly half of the population of the globe lives in cities. During the same period, human life expectancy has risen from forty-five to seventy-five years, and, in the 1990s, the risk of dying in childbirth is at least forty times less than a mere fifty years ago.
00000In general, the increase of population has resulted from medical advances that defer death rather than a dramatic increase in births, although in parts of the world live births have significantly increased. This population explosion does not necessarily— or even probably—portend more of the same in the future, both because of declining birth rates in the most highly developed countries and because of the continuous appearance of new viruses and epidemics that resist existing drugs. But, especially when combined with the breathtaking technological advances that have literally transformed the world, its significance for the attitudes and culture of those who have lived through it should not be underestimated.
00000The sexual revolution has had an especially dramatic impact upon culture and the expectations of individuals, although we remain far from a full understanding of the probable consequences. What we do know is that the broad dissemination of artificial contraception, notably the Pill, followed by the legalization of abortion, has effectively liberated men from the obligation to marry the women they impregnate. This liberation undoes the work of countless centuries during which the goal had been to bind men into some kind of domestic unit with women and children. Our own times have largely repudiated the claims of patriarchy and paternalism that emerged from this project and that often seem to have been accepted as a reasonable exchange for the legitimacy and protection of marriage for women and fathers for children. What we seem to be slow to grasp is the recognition that the repudiation or discrediting of fatherhood constitutes a major blow against the significance of affiliation and descent—in a word, history.
00000In one century, we have effectively doubled the material progress of all previous history, and, in so doing, we have cut ourselves adrift from most of those previous centuries’ accumulated wisdom and practices. The implications of these developments for us as historians are sobering. We confront a world in which a majority —perhaps a large majority—of young people, including our own students, does not expect history to illuminate any aspect of their lives. The core of historical study has ever lain in understanding the delicate balance between what changes and what does not. The lessons of history have always depended upon distinguishing the new from the recurring: Will an understanding of Julius Caesar’s role in the late Roman Republic offer an illuminating guide to political leadership and the prospects for democracy in the antebellum South or in late twentieth-century Serbia? Or are they irrelevant?
00000To say that the revolutionary changes of our times, which I have barely begun to sketch, have vitiated all the bearing of all previous historical experience is effectively to call our own humanity into question. For if we claim that the triumphs and travails of other previous societies have no bearing upon our current situation, we are attributing greater importance to the technology that distinguishes our world from its predecessors than to the common human qualities that binds our experience to that of our predecessors. Worse, we are tacitly acknowledging that technology is our master, thereby sacrificing our ability to choose one course of action over another and casting ourselves as pawns rather than actors. We do seem to be living through times that are inherently hostile to history, but that very hostility should alert us to history’s indispensable and irreplaceable role as antidote to the most pernicious aspects of the times.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University.

by Jay R. Mandle

00000In their recent, and very important work, Globalization and History: The Evolution of the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy, economic historians Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson remind us that international economic integration is not unique to the late twentieth century. Between the middle of the nineteenth century and World War I, the ties between economies on both sides of the Atlantic became closer as both international trade and foreign investment grew to historically high levels. 
00000Although it is useful to point to the historical antecedent of contemporary globalization, the similarities between the nineteenth-century phenomenon and the process underway at present should not be overdrawn. In particular, the geographic scope of what occurred in the first period was significantly narrower than that at present. In the nineteenth century, participation in the international economy was largely confined to Europe and regions of settlement by Europeans such as North America. Because the process was delimited in this way, its positive impact on economic growth was confined. Today, in contrast, the extent of geographic inclusion in the international economy is much more widespread, involving parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa that formerly were either omitted altogether or were only partially integrated, as occurred in colonial settings. Because this is so, the contemporary experience raises the possibility that economic development may spread more extensively than in the past and that as a result underdevelopment and poverty may be overcome in a way that the earlier experience did not approximate.
00000Fundamental in differentiating the two historical periods of integration is the fact that advances in new communications and information-processing technologies, by phenomenally increasing the speed at which information and goods can travel, have reduced the importance of distance in economic activity. There are few locations today that are so geographically remote that investors are discouraged by location alone. Industries can be established and jobs can now be created virtually everywhere.
00000What makes this so significant is that economic growth remains the only way to reduce third world poverty. Whatever merits may be attached to redistributive policies, wealth must be created before it can be reallocated. In the poor countries of the world it is production—more accurately the failure to produce sufficiently—that has kept people mired in poverty. That failure has to be overcome if there is to be any hope of extensively reducing worldwide impoverishment. In the contemporary world what that means is that poor countries must attract investment and technology from abroad while finding market outlets both domestically and internationally. It is hard to imagine a low-income country today overcoming its underdevelopment if it turns its back on globalization.
00000Development, however, does not come cheaply. It requires poor countries to invest in physical infrastructure and to spend adequately on educating their populations. The technology of contemporary modernization requires schooling and the provision of electrical power, water, sewage systems, and roads, to name just a few. With these investments in people and public facilities, all countries, no matter their distance from the major markets of the world, can become attractive locations in which producers can set up shop.
00000In assessing the potential for contemporary globalization to reduce poverty, it is important to distinguish the possibilities associated with the use of computers, faxes, and the Internet from the market-integrating policies supported by the United States and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Both of the latter almost always counsel poor countries against high levels of public expenditures, despite the fact that precisely such spending on education and infrastructure is critical to successful participation in the world economy. The new technology simply cannot be utilized effectively without these complements. Globalization, that is, is not the same thing as the neoliberal doctrine of freeing markets and reducing the size of government, the so-called Washington consensus. At least to some extent they in fact stand in contradiction to each other.
00000The problem is that the distinction between the two is all too often blurred. Thus Harold James, a Princeton professor of history writing for a publication of the IMF, writes of globalization as “the liberalization of trade in goods and services and the increasingly unrestricted flow of capital across borders. . . .” (James 11). In treating market-freeing policies as synonymous with globalization in this way, the relationship between public-sector investment and the successful deployment of the new technologies is overlooked.
00000The irony here is that the participants in the recent demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO) also conflated the potential associated with the new technologies and neoliberal policies. In doing so, protestors overlooked the fact that that organization’s rules contradict in important ways IMF free-market orthodoxy. For example, the WTO explicitly protects the right of countries to engage in tariff protection in the name of their technological advance. On the assumption that the demonstrators would agree that the alleviation of the human suffering associated with underdevelopment is a desirable objective, they thus misidentified their opponent. That opponent is not globalization or the WTO, but the specific policies that, in the name of freeing markets and reducing the role of government, impedes the ability of poor countries to do what globalization requires and the WTO permits.
00000Notwithstanding the fact that a substantial source of funding for the Seattle demonstrations seems to have come from sources that have long advocated high protective tariffs (Lizza), it is too easy simply to condemn the Seattle protestors as protectionists. Some undoubtedly joined in the protest based on such a motivation. But others, probably numerically in the majority, were there because they believe that democratic and egalitarian values were put at risk by international trade and by the institutions that support that trade. Unrecognized by these activists was the possibility that the weakening or demise of the WTO would actually reduce the voice of poor and small countries in global economic decision making, leaving in its wake the unfettered dominance of the wealthy countries. The fact is that if the WTO did not exist or if its influence were greatly reduced, the ability of the underdeveloped world to resist American unilateralism or IMF “conditionalities” in the setting of economic policy would be greatly diminished. Many poor countries do not accept the principles of market orthodoxy. But the most likely outcome of the WTO’s demise would be a decline in their ability to resist policy packages in which market outcomes are considered sacrosanct and the public sector minimized. In light of the investment requirements associated with the new technology, the probability is that such an eventuality would reduce, not augment, the pace at which the development is diffused and global income levels raised.
00000Furthermore, the historical record suggests that an enhanced American unilateralism almost certainly would not work on behalf of the objectives most fervently sought by many of the Seattle demonstrators— global core labor standards and the protection of the environment. Certainly the domestic record of the United States in both areas provides no grounds for believing otherwise. Can it be more than a bad joke to argue that the country that is the world’s leading environmental degrader and in which less than 10 percent of the private-sector labor force is unionized is to be provided with enhanced influence with regard to worker rights and ecological protection? The implementation of universal labor standards and the protection of the environment are desirable objectives. But it is much more likely that their accomplishment will be achieved and be adhered to if they are the consequence of the kind of multilateral negotiations that lead to the creation of the WTO, than if they are entrusted to the presumed benevolent intentions of what would have to be a coercive United States policy agenda.
00000None of this is to deny the demonstrator’s point that globalization does cause real problems for the people of a country like the United States. Increased international trade and the capital flows associated with it do dislocate industries and cause job losses. But as the current economic expansion clearly demonstrates, our own capacity to achieve economic growth is more than adequate to create sufficient new industries and employment opportunities to offset these dislocations. Nevertheless problems remain, particularly with regard to the occupational shifts required by workers who have lost their jobs in competition with the labor-intensive industries of the third world. The difficulties caused by the structural changes induced by globalization are not trivial. They necessitate policy interventions to ensure that the required transitions are accomplished as seamlessly as possible. What is needed are policies such as wage insurance for workers who lose their jobs, portable health insurance, an expansion of the earned income tax credit program, and a modern system of adult education and job retraining. Those who think that globalization necessitates a reduction of the role of government thus are wrong with regard to the rich as well as the developing countries. While government in poor countries must create the conditions that attract investment, supportive public-sector policies are needed in the rich ones to ensure that workers there are not made to be the innocent victims of that process.
00000In a recent column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote sarcastically that “the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of... denying opportunity to third world workers.” Krugman is flip, but the issues he addressed are important ones. For the fact is that the interests of workers in the poor countries and rich countries are not necessarily in conflict. Avoiding pitting one against the other, however, requires that the diffusion of the new technologies be encouraged, while at the same time occupational mobility in the developed nations is enhanced. Globalization impedes neither. But inappropriate free-market policies can throttle both.
00000It is domestic politics, not the international economy, that accounts for the failure of the United States to provide health insurance, adequate systems of worker retraining, help in relocating workers, and other needed domestic supports. Similarly, it is ideology that is responsible for this country’s discouraging poor nations from undertaking the public-sector outlays necessary if they are to take their place in the modern world economy by attracting the investment of high-technology firms.
00000Because the geographic scope of the globalization process that started late in the twentieth century is more extensive than the nineteenth-century version, the Seattle demonstrators inadvertently placed themselves in opposition to third world economic growth. Rather than do that, they would have been better advised to support and strengthen the kind of multilateralism present in the WTO and turn their energies to advocating the domestic policies of support created by the dynamism of modernization rather than attempting to slow or reverse the globalization or dismantle the WTO. Instead of opposing globalization, they could take on the hard task of convincing the American people that, since job dislocation is inevitable in a global economy, a supportive state is necessary to accommodate the turmoil associated with economic progress.


James, Harold, “Is Liberalization Reversible?” Finance and Development 36:4
(December 1999).

Krugman, Paul, “Reckonings; Once and Again.” The New York Times on the Web (www.nytimes.com) accessed January 8, 2000.

Lizza, Ryan, “Silent Partner: The Man Behind the Anti-Free Trade Revolt,” The New Republic (January 10, 2000).

O’Rourke, Kevin and Jeffrey Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).

Jay R. Mandle is the W. Bradford Wiley Professor of Economics at Colgate University.

by Marshall Poe

00000Years ago Carl Becker published an unjustly neglected essay in which he explored the place of history—what he called the “memory of things said and done”—in human life and thought. Becker explained that the work of professional historians is but an extension and refinement of the retrospective investigations all people undertake, and must undertake, in the course of their daily routines. Becker’s point was that history has an essential and ineradicable utility such that everyone must, in Becker’s striking phrase, be “his own historian.” Yet Becker was not suggesting that anyone should or could be a professional historian. He recognized, and most contemporary historians accept, that the practices of academic history in fact exclude amateurs from doing much more than reading professional history. Indeed, the gap between academic and amateur historical consciousness has perhaps never been wider than it is today. Very few laymen have the patience to read narrow history monographs. The idea of investigating history through the examination of primary sources is foreign to all but professionals. And, if some amateur historians do conduct research, they will find it difficult to publish.
00000Yet all that is changing. The advent of the Internet is calling into question the division between professional and amateur history. Today amateur historians are learning, researching, and even publishing history on the Internet, challenging the professional historian’s monopoly on what might be called the “means of history,” namely, historical training, the research library and archive, and the press. The possibility that, via the Internet, masses of amateurs might become involved in the production and consumption of history raises issues about the place of history in a republic, the future of disciplinary boundaries, and the potential for a truly popular historical discourse.

The Breach Between Academic and Amateur History
00000Prior to the French Revolution, history was a literary genre or ancillary science rather than a distinct discipline taught at universities, practiced by historians, and published in special authorized venues. There were virtually no professorships in history during the Renaissance or Enlightenment, although history was taught in universities before our age. But history was most certainly not a discipline in its own right, primarily because it had not gained an independent place in the medieval curricula and was more an auxiliary to more established disciplines. Special chairs were created in legal and ecclesiastical history, but these professorships were designed to provide useful background for lawyers and clerics, not for the study of history pure and simple.
00000It was not until the nineteenth century, then, that professional history emerged, a result of both intellectual and political trends. Many of those who practiced history began to believe that it was, like the evolving subdivisions of the natural sciences, a discipline in its own right. The experience of several centuries of sloppy antiquarian scholarship demonstrated that the task required carefully cultivated skills, highly developed documentary resources, and even special forms of scholarly communication. The ideas of university training in history, research archives and libraries, and the historical monograph and journal were born.
00000Meanwhile, the upheavals of the French Revolution had ushered in a new age in European politics, one dominated by the twin forces of nationalism and liberalism. The Revolution had changed the basis of political legitimacy: where kings had once ruled by the grace of God, now “nations” ruled by historical right, and a national history could play a vital role. The state began to subsidize history in earnest: professorships dedicated to the national past were founded; national archives and research libraries were reorganized for historians; and academic journals and university publishers were funded.
00000It is ironic that this publicly funded plan to raise national historical consciousness has had rather the opposite effect. In the nineteenth century there was an easy and organic connection between most of what professional historians wrote and what their publics wanted to read. There is no cause to wax nostalgic for a time in which every schoolboy knew about his country’s past and even marginally educated people read the same popular history books. No such time ever existed. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the bond that once united university history and the educated public is now broken. The rift began in the last years of the nineteenth century, and accelerated after World War II, as history departments started to host chairs dedicated to foreign countries and their histories. As history departments in the United States became increasingly specialized along national lines, European history departments followed suit.
00000Doubtless, specialization augmented professional understanding of the past. But what professors gained was, to a significant degree, lost by the public. A chorus of monographic voices often speaking in foreign tongues replaced sweeping national histories. As the accepted mode of historical writing became the narrow monograph, the historical professorate fell out of touch with the wider reading public, creating a gap between academic and popular history. History is taught in every high school, there are documentaries, movies, and even an entire television channel devoted to historical matters, while outlets such as the History Book Club do a brisk business. But what one finds in these popular media often has little in common with the concerns of professional scholars. The history professor and the History Channel may be talking about the same thing, but they are speaking different languages.

The Dilemma of Internet History
00000In theory, the Internet could begin to reduce the gap between academic and popular history by democratizing the means of history—instruction, documents, and publishing—all of which have been monopolized by professional historians. Until recently, in order to study history on a university level one had to gain admittance to college and pay tuition. With the Internet, anyone can “enroll” in a remote-learning program and study history from the comfort of their office or home, or “poach” a syllabus for self-study. The Internet promises to make available vast stores of historical data from repositories scattered about the world. At present, university professors in alliance with academic publishers dominate historical publishing. The Internet offers amateurs Web sites that need neither pass muster with an editorial board nor involve expensive printing.
00000It seems clear that the democratization of history is a positive development insofar as it may promote historical thinking among the citizenry. But will it? Today there are hundreds of on-line history courses, with the vast majority designed by professional historians, centered on a “virtual classroom” where syllabi, lectures, and readings are posted, and students submit assignments. On-line courses provide student-teacher interaction through e-mail, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. In terms of research, there are many sources available on the Web for amateur historians. Though the process of digitizing archival materials is slow, in American history fields there are already vast runs of primary documents in “virtual archives.” And thanks to projects aimed at making journals, books, and dissertations Internet-accessible, there is a growing catalogue of secondary sources on-line, especially in the area of genealogical research.
00000The Internet, then, definitely widens the circle of those thinking about the past. But what kind of historical thinking does the Internet promote? The Web may be a rather dangerous place to begin considering the past, as it is often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Virtual classrooms are accessible, but they have real disadvantages when compared to actual classrooms; interaction and discussion are limited, and multimedia presentations perhaps encourage the faulty habits of mind that “live” humanities courses are supposed to squelch, namely, short attention spans, a preference for images over texts, and an inability to listen attentively. Historical research on the Internet is similarly problematic. Much of the material available has been posted by university historians, librarians, and, archivists, but there is no gatekeeping mechanism to insure that accepted protocols are followed. Anyone can post a “source” and call it the genuine article. For every serious, trustworthy historical Web page, there is another that contains a host of errors. Most mistakes are innocuous, but others are dangerous, for they intentionally promulgate myths (and often very hateful ones), thus making it difficult for the untrained eye to discriminate the truthful from the mildly wayward and the willfully misleading. It is all just “history.”

The Future of the Past
00000Will we see a bright new day in which the division of professional and amateur history is eroded and citizens become, as a result, much better informed about the past? Or will we witness the degradation of popular historical understanding, as the Internet becomes a forum for the promulgation of sloppy history, myth, and error? A preliminary answer is suggested by history itself. Ours is not the first age in which history has been transferred to a new medium. Half a millennium ago, medieval manuscript history began to evolve into early modern print history. Like the Internet, print held open the promise of increased popular participation in history: history books became widely available, documents could be published, and print, though expensive, ultimately proved cheaper than writing. What is most striking is how little the medium itself changed history as a cultural practice. In the high Middle Ages, a very few learned men (primarily clerics) wrote histories in books. In the early modern period, after the advent of print, the same was true: a very few learned men (now clerics and gentlemen) wrote histories in books (now printed). In short, neither the historiographical character nor the social profile of history changed very much. As we saw above, the developments that eventually made history recognizably modern had nothing to do with print but were part of the state’s effort to inform the public about the nation’s past. Ideas and politics transformed history as a discipline, not any shift in medium.
00000If experience can be our guide, then, we should not expect the advent of the Internet to alter the division between professional and popular history for the simple reason that the ideas and institutions that created the divide in the first place show no sign of changing. It has, of course, become very fashionable to criticize history, as a host of postmodern historiographers have informed us that discovering the past “as it was” is a pipe dream, that in reality historians mold the “facts” into stories that are, if not fictitious, at least not history “as it was.” True enough. But most working historians do not pay very close attention to this sort of thing. The vast majority of historians believe that reconstruction of the past is a special skill, requiring advanced training, documentary resources, and restrictive means of scholarly communication. Most historians feel that the division between academic and public history is regrettable, as the public should know more about the past. But, in light of the current structure of the profession, historians are under little pressure to popularize their writings or liberalize access. In fact, quite the opposite is the case: At every stage in a historian’s career, he or she is told to write narrow, technical pieces that will incrementally enhance historical knowledge. There is every reason, then, to expect that the restrictive institutions that make up modern professional history—the university seminar, the documentary repository, and the peer-reviewed scholarly organ—will either remain untouched or will be transferred to the Internet in roughly the same elitist form they exist today.
00000Indeed, we can see the transition occurring before our eyes. Though some major academic institutions have invested significant resources in “distance learning,” history teaching on the Internet presents both pedagogical and practical difficulties. Though one might be able to successfully teach a technical subject on-line, humanities instruction seems to require the richness of face-to-face personal interaction through lecture and discussion. Moreover, like the correspondence courses of old, the on-line courses lack cachet and therefore will not attract the best students. Significant amounts of historical information will soon come on-line, but one wonders whether amateurs will use it for historical research. It is already the case that universities—the institutions that pay for much of the digitization and storage of on-line materials—are restricting access to faculty and students. They have every reason to do so, for access to information, whether in the form of professors or electronic texts, is their stock and trade. And even if we grant that much of the historical data coming on-line will be free, will more than a tiny portion of the citizenry be interested in looking at it? Today, unused libraries and archives stand as silent witnesses to the public’s lack of interest in historical research. Finally, there is every indication that the traditional, restrictive forms of scholarly communication—the vetted monograph and the peer-reviewed journal—will soon find a permanent place on the Web and will serve to clearly separate professional from amateur history. The reasons are at once economic and scholarly. As is well known, the scholarly monograph and the system of credentialing it supports are in crisis. It is a simple story: tenure committees demand monographs for advancement; junior professors write the books; university presses, however, cannot publish these expensive texts because university libraries cannot afford to buy them in sufficient quantities. The cheap electronic monograph provides an easy solution to the problem. Yet the electronic monograph also enjoys definite scholastic advantages over the paper version: it is easy to replicate and distribute; it is fully word and phrase searchable; and it is hyper-textual, allowing readers to move directly to sources outside the text. It goes without saying that amateurs will be excluded from electronic scholarly publishing just as they were excluded from print scholarly publishing.
00000The net effect of these actions will be the creation of a kind of on-line professional sphere in which standard academic practices are maintained and amateurs kept out. And here’s the rub: If professional historians reconstruct the division between academic and popular history on the Web, then amateur historians will be left to their own devices. This sort of anarchy may well lead to the degradation of historical thought as error compounds error and myth builds on myth in an electronic arena unregulated by scholars. One might counter that there is nothing to worry about. After all, amateur historians were equally detached from professional guidance in the print world, yet—with certain notable exceptions—they did not produce very much myth-history, in fact, they did not produce much history at all. Such a response ignores the differences between print and the Internet. Print is expensive to produce, maintain, and transmit. It was precisely the cost of print that enabled professional historians to monopolize the means of history, for only they (with the backing of states and their universities) had the funds to buy the books and presses necessary to research and publish history. The Internet, in contrast, makes it very inexpensive to produce, maintain, and distribute history. Thus the professors have lost their monopoly on the means of history. If professional historians enter into a dialogue with amateurs, if they get involved in the Web, then it seems that the result will be a richer historical culture and a better informed citizenry. If, however, scholars are slow to engage popular history on the Internet, then the public historical sphere runs the risk of becoming a seedbed for every imaginable kind of myth. The age of the Internet holds both this promise and danger for the practice of history.

Marshall Poe is a member of the Department of Government and Society at the University of Limerick in Limerick, Ireland.


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