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The Nature of History: A Debate between Marc Trachtenberg and James M. Banner, Jr., 1998

The Nature of History

What follows is a debate published by H-SHEAR, an internet discussion list on the early American republic, and permitted for non-commercial reproduction by prior agreement with the authors and copyright holders.

The first is the text of an article published in the Wall Street Journal on July 17, 1998, entitled "The Past Under Siege," by Marc Trachtenberg, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and an organizer of the new Historical Society. Following the article is a response by James M. Banner, Jr., an independent historian in Washington, D.C.

The exchange may be reproduced electronically for nonprofit purposes, if proper attribution is given to the authors, the Wall Street Journal, H-SHEAR, and H-Net. The debate is also being sent to H-Net lists for distribution to a wider audience. 


Thirty years ago, when I first became a historian, I thought I knew what historical work should be. I had this notion that the goal was to get at the truth. It seemed obvious that to do that you had to put your political beliefs aside and frame questions in such a way that the answers turned on what the evidence showed.

As everyone knows, this whole concept of historical work has been under attack in recent years. We have seen the rise of a new brand of history, defined not so much by the kind of subject matter it seeks to "privilege" above all, by a preoccupation with issues of gender--but by something more basic.

Increasingly, the old ideal of historical objectivity is dismissed out of hand. The very notion of "historical truth" is now often considered hopelessly naive. Instead, the tendency is for people to insist that all interpretation is to be understood in essentially political terms. If objectivity is a myth, how can our understanding of the past be anything but an artifact of our political beliefs? Indeed, if all interpretation is political anyway, then why not give free rein to one's own political views? Why not use whatever power one happens to have to "privilege" one's own brand of history?

And in fact a particular brand of history is currently being "privileged." Just look at what goes on at the annual meetings of the main professional organizations, or what gets published in their journals. "A Dual-Gendered Perspective on Eighteenth Century Advice and Behavior"; "Constructing Menstruation"; "Rationalizing the Body"; "The Ambiguities of Embodiment in Early America" these are the sorts of topics one sees all the time nowadays.

Or look at the kinds of courses that now, increasingly, are being taught in major academic departments. One leading university lists a course called "Introduction to Feminist Studies" as part of its history curriculum. Note the title: not women s history, not the history of gender relations, indeed, not history at all, but "feminist studies." You don't have to be an expert in Foucault to deconstruct that. Another course listed as part of the history curriculum there was called "Bodyworks." The goal of this course, according to the syllabus, was to examine the thesis that "dramatic new ways of imaging, controlling, intervening, remaking, possibly even choosing bodies have participated in a complete reshaping of the notion of the body in the cultural imaginary and a transformation of our experience of actual human bodies." "Using theories of postmodernism," this class would address the questions: "are there postmodern bodies? And how have they been constructed?" It would explore the thesis that "postmodern bodies are cyborg bodies and that we are all cyborgs."

One sees this sort of thing more and more, and it is not to be dismissed as simply a passing fad. The problem is that the "privileging" of certain types of history necessarily implies the marginalization of everything else. Those who do trendy work find it relatively easy to get jobs and eventually to get tenure. But younger scholars who still believe in the traditional concept of what historical work should be find it much harder to get to first base in their academic careers. Many drop out of graduate school when they see which way the wind is blowing. And many talented undergraduates see what is going on and decide not to go to graduate school in the first place.

The result is that the profession as a whole is gradually being transformed. Last year, for example, I came across a reference to the "virtual disappearance" of diplomatic history, my own field, from the curriculum of "major departments." Can it be that people really think that courses in "feminist studies" are more important, and more worthy of being taught in history departments, than courses concerned with the problem of war and peace? It s hard to believe, but increasingly that seems to be the case.

This is a serious problem, not just for the academic community, but for the country as a whole, because the way the past is understood and, even more than that, the quality of historical culture--is a matter of profound importance to society at large.

So what s the solution? If there is an answer, it has to come from within the profession, and in fact something important has been going on. Two months ago, a new organization for professional historians, The Historical Society, officially came into being. The scholars who joined this new body--there were over 200 charter members--were no monolithic bloc. Some of them resented the politicization of the major professional organizations (a charge which the leaders of these organizations do not even bother to deny). Some especially disliked what they saw as the parochial and exclusionary attitude of the newly dominant groups, reflected most notably in what went on at annual meetings of the established organizations. Some simply found the status quo boring and wanted above all to put some intellectual excitement back into their professional lives.

But these people all had one thing in common: a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, a discontent strong enough to lead them to break with the established organizations and to say through their action that something new was needed.

Who are the scholars who have joined the new Historical Society? Just tired old conservative white male professors, who had been left behind by the transformation of the profession and who wanted nothing more than to turn back the clock to the good ole days when they were in the saddle?

As it turns out, the new Society includes some of the most distinguished scholars in the profession. Its membership covers the whole political spectrum. Its president, Eugene Genovese, one of the nation's most eminent historians, is an ex-Marxist and still certainly a man of the left. It includes black scholars who, given the rawness of the black historical experience, bridle at the idea that there is no such thing as historical reality and that everything is just a construct. It includes women who resent being told that they should be doing "feminist history." And it includes many of our best younger scholars who feel, with some justification, that they are not getting a fair shake from the system.

Will the new organization transform the profession? A few months ago, I thought the establishment of this new group would be little more than a symbolic gesture. I was astonished by the response, and now I am more optimistic.

The real battles, of course, will be fought in the universities, and an organization like this can scarcely change things overnight. But the new Society can show through its example what historical work should be and what a professional historical organization should be. If it succeeds at that, it might well have a major impact on the future of historical culture in America.

[Mr. Trachtenberg, one of the organizers of the new Historical Society, is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.]


Response by James M. Banner, Jr.

23 July 1998

Professor Marc Trachtenberg Department of History University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 19104-6228

Dear Professor Trachtenberg:

I write in response to your article, "The Past Under Siege," in the Wall Street Journal of July 17th.

While the new historical association, on whose creation you and Gene Genovese are embarked, is likely to gain a toehold among other associations, it seems to me that the project fails on grounds of ideology, strategy, evidence, consistency, and, not least of all, nomenclature. Other than that, as one might say, it has a strong future.

Let's start with its claimed name: The Historical Society. To those of us who continue to support, despite their evident weaknesses and frequent foolishness, the senior organizations of Clio's discipline, especially the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians-just as we retain a certain loyalty to the United States, despite the nation's many defects, and don't flee to Canada-the arrogant presumptuousness of the new organization's name, "The Historical Society," strikes a sour chord. The historical society of what? one is forced to ask. Of aggrieved victims? Of Atlanta or Philadelphia? Of Massachusetts (surely never that!)? Or of the world? Are the AHA and OAH not historical societies? The one reaction the organization is unlikely to survive is ridicule. It may be too late.

In addition, those who have read what for another organization would be termed its "prospectus" are forced, in this day of exquisite sensitivity to words, to take note of the name of the society's own prospectus: its "Manifesto." Those who claim to seek the resurrection of political, institutional, and diplomatic history ought to exhibit less of a political tin ear than that. There have been manifestos elsewhere, but something tells me that the term is rather foreign to the American experience.

But let us turn to evidence. In a wry commentary some years ago on certain kinds of increasingly popular argumentation, Francis Oakley coined the term "disheveled anecdotalism." One would like to think that you and your colleagues would avoid that method. So far you haven't. To be sure, the space you're allotted on an op-ed page prevents you from making your case fully. And surely you're right to cite some of the more egregious examples of academic folly, such as history courses in "bodyworks," meeting sessions on "constructing menstruation," and the use of neologisms like "privileging" (but shouldn't we also add "hegemonic"?), against which all of us can justly rage (and many of us laugh). (Although I must say that the sheer foolishness of some historians reminds me frequently, and gives me heart, that historians are normal human beings and not, as some would think, people out of the ordinary.) But to suggest that such courses and such terms are universal, that they've taken over all departments, and that young scholars who don't pursue fashionable studies are kept from professorships seems to me simply wrong on its face. Until you provide us with strong studies (not anecdotal ones) in your favor, your enterprise doesn't deserve the support or respect of historians who, even from undergraduates, normally require better evidence than you offer.

Let me, however, provide my own slice of evidence (disheveled anecdotes, too!)-and evidence to the contrary. Just this past weekend, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. A firm opponent of "fragment " institutions, I have never been a SHEAR member, although I have long been a student of the early nation. Yet no one can overlook the strength and success of this little institution in its 22 years-its journal, its meetings, the seriousness of its member , the scholarship that it encourages. Had you been at its recent meeting, you could not have subsequently written as you did, at least ingenuously, in the Journal. Virtually the entire meeting program was devoted to traditional issues or new ones defined in ways that would have made your heart sing. No neologisms here, no caucuses, no divisions of men and women (men attended sessions on women, and vice versa), no ideological battles, no "manifestos." Instead, graduate students mixed easily with senior or scholars and newly minted academics-most of the latter of whom, although political and institutional historians or, like you, students of foreign affairs, had recently found line positions at colleges and research universities throughout the country.

What was so encouraging to someone like myself, who has, like you, a short fuse for inanity, was that no foolishness was to be heard or seen. I have rarely attended a meeting from which I gained as much. Everyone had put political beliefs aside and framed ed questions, in your words, "in such a way that the answers turned on what the evidence showed." If you are to claim that politics, "exclusionary attitudes," "feminist studies," and such have taken over the discipline, you will have to explain away such evidence to the contrary. The status quo "boring" so that people were rushing off to found a new society? On the contrary. Venerable disciplinary questions were being treated in a manner of engagement, liveliness, and wit that was anything but boring. And women were not being pushed aside for not doing "feminist history," nor, inasmuch as a majority of the papers were given by graduate students or young assistant professors, was there evidence of aspiring professionals "not getting a fair shake from the system."

Next, let's take the strategy of the soi-disant Historical Society. You and I can fairly differ about whether a "come outer" approach works or can work in a situation such as the one you claim the discipline faces. But, again, the facts, I fear, are not on your side-or at least I interpret them differently than you do. You imply-and I wager that, like I, in the solitude of your office you more loudly complain-that we risk becoming a discipline of self-professed victims and that we pursue victim studies . Much of what has been produced in the name of Clio in the last quarter century can surely be called that. But here again, to make a robust case for your course of action, you have to convince me of two things. The first is that, whether in the name o of victims or not, the last quarter century has not given us (with serious costs to be sure) the greatest advances in understanding of other people at other times in other places that the discipline has ever before experienced. You and I may not always like the tone, the approach, and the ideology that undergirds and advances this understanding. But if you can find another era in which we've learned so much about workers, colonial peoples, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and misfits-to say nothing o of elites, white men, majorities, "normal" people, and politics and institutions (my particular interest) and foreign relations (yours)-I should like you to cite it to me and make your case to all the world. You are free not to like what we've learned; you are free to pursue other kinds of scholarship than those which are fashionable. (In fact, yours is the kind of scholarship I pursue, sometimes, I fear, at the risk of seeming an anachronism; but I do so out of love for the subject, and nothing will deter me from that.) But you must do better than to dismiss the results of this scholarship as mere victim, ideological, or self-referential history.

The second thing of which you have to convince me is that you and your colleagues are not themselves engaging in what you and I apparently both detest: whining. Yes, you've been momentarily pushed aside by new currents of thought. By unspoken consensus, the majority of historians have decided that, at least for now, we know enough of traditional subjects and must learn more-and learn to think about that "more" better-about subjects previously ignored. But rather than staying within the AHA and the OAH and fighting for your subjects, for space on their annual meeting programs, for posts on their governing boards, and, most important, for the epicentral significance of issues of politics, ideas, power, and wars, you've decided to take the easy way out.

Perhaps you've admitted defeat (although I hope not). But surely you can be accused, as you accuse others, of complaining rather than battling, of yourselves trying to change the rules of the game rather than using the ones that exist, and, worst, of moving off onto your own isolated terrain with the possible result that others can more easily ignore your just claims to seriousness and attention. In that soil lie the seeds of your own irrelevance. You will welcome everyone to membership, you say in your article. But why would those whom you attack join? Why would Bill Buckley join the Democratic Party or Tom Hayden attend a Republican convention? You risk hiving yourself off into another discrete segment of historians, publishing yet another journal in which scholars talk to one another but not to anyone else, meeting warmly each year with comrades in negative reference to the others with whom you disagree, hyperventilating about the delicts of most historians, and gaining the exquisite satisfaction of being in the right. That is not enough.

Finally, I have to remind you of the thin theoretical base of the claims that are implicit in your approach. Out of the turmoils-evidentiary, ideological, social, cultural, and theoretical-of the past decades has arisen a body of thought about objectivity, language, evidence, argument, presentation, and even the very existence of independent historical knowledge. I refer of course to the work of such historians as Haydn White, James Kloppenberg, Tom Haskell, David Hollinger, Bob Berkhofer, and most recently David Harlan-to name only a few and only those in the Anglo-American tradition. Underlying much of the disintegration of purpose, comity, and institution in academic life is a vital debate, not yet resolved (and possibly never to be) about the nature of reality, perception, and fact. The notion of "historical truth" is not universally considered, as you write, to be "hopelessly naive" or "dismissed out of hand." Far from it. Some of the best minds in the discipline wrestle with the very nature of historical truth in every word they write. One who thinks deeply and seriously about historical truth must accept the possibility that, whether you or I like it or not, it will never be possible on philosophic grounds to accept older notions of truth, historical or otherwise. This may indeed mark a revolution in human affairs, and so it is not likely that the actions and words of a few historians can avail against the powerful thrusts of epistemology, French theory, deconstruction, postmodernism, and the he like. They have permanently altered our world-they are indeed, as you say, "more basic"-and no historical society will hold back their forces.

I should also point out in closing, if somewhat parenthetically, that your analysis of the state of what you call "the profession" pertains principally to the academic profession. An entire body of new practices, little noticed by too many academic historians though of great consequence to their students, has come into being, and it goes under the name of public history. An increasing number (now close to 40%) of aspiring historians-whether by necessity or choice is still unclear-are entering this other profession within history's discipline. Your fears about the fate of graduate students, which, as I argue above, I believe are misplaced on other grounds, may also be misplaced on this one. To be sure, many are being disappointed in their search for academic posts. But many are carrying Clio's light beyond the classroom, and a historical society that ignores these historians, as well as the methodological and historiographical issues they raise, ignores them at its peril.

In this letter, I have tried to be as fair and serious as your efforts deserve. So I close with the hope that you will try to provide the evidence I seek and engage some of the issues that I raise here. They are, I'm confident you will agree, important issues, and issues on which more heat has been vented than light shone in recent years. They cry out for evidence, for analytical rigor, and for theoretical sophistication. If the new organization, despite my objections, could achieve what has been so lacking in recent decades of charges and countercharges-namely, evidence-based, non-ideological studies of the recent history of the discipline of history-that would be a genuine contribution to us all. To do so, however, will require quite different approaches than the ones that you and your colleagues (my colleagues, too) have so far adopted.

That such a wide range of people, many of whom I know and admire, have seen fit to join your new organization gives me pause about not joining myself. But I cannot wish well to yet another fragment society, one built so far upon such a shallow foundation of evidence, upon such a tone of grievance, upon the name that it claims, and upon the strategy it pursues. The society may flourish, and I wish well for the work of its members. But it will not have my support. For how can we all pull together if we all pull apart?

With best regards,

Sincerely, /s/

James M. Banner, Jr.


Posted on H-Net discussion lists, fall 1998.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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