Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Historians for the present

Manan Ahmed has called for a symposium: A Historian for the People. This is my contribution.

Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the New York Times, notes the passing of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as the loss of America's "last great public historian." Tanenhaus points to Schlesinger, along with C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter, as having written classic works of history that simultaneously addressed contemporary political problems. Tanenhaus calls for more historians like them.

Tanenhaus shoots down the most likely successors to Schlesinger as lacking the broad cultural authority that Schlesinger held for the past half century. Gordon Wood's Radicalism of the American Revolution and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom fail to influence how we think about current topics. In this respect, Tanenhaus gets things backwards. It might be the case that the Wood's proposed radicalism really has no contemporary significance. Tanenhaus's complaint that the works of Wood, McPherson, and those like them are "mired" in the past misses out on the fact that they must stand on their own merits as studies of a particular period in the past. That they do not offer clear lessons or morals for the present is not a liability.

I suspect, however, that even if Wood and McPherson wrote books in the mold of Schlesinger, they would not gain the audience and attention that Schlesinger commanded. Schlesinger's cultural authority came, in large part, from his life story. The son of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., he already had a name famous in scholarly circles. Born in the same year as John F. Kennedy, he was a student at Harvard at the same time as the future president. He served in the Office of War Information and OSS during WWII, then returned to Harvard as a professor of history, all before becoming a Special Assistant to President Kennedy. As a result, he had the scholarly credibility, the social connections, and the political experience necessary to emerge as a bona fide public intellectual.

It's not simply a matter, then, of historians emulating Arthur Schlesinger's commitment to addressing contemporary issues. Schlesinger was a special case. He built up a tremendous amount of social capital in ways that aren't readily available to historians today. For better or worse, there are few opportunities for historians (or most other academics) to move directly into public service.

Historians can and should offer their perspectives on the problems and issues of today. But it's not as simple as writing books like Schlesinger. The 21st century needs a new model of the public intellectual. Tanenhaus is right; there won't be another Arthur Schlesinger. He was of another generation and is not an easy model for contemporary historians to follow.

I don't know the best way for historians to engage in public discussions. It's a tough question, made all the more difficult by rapid changes in technology -- witness the rising importance of blogs in the past few years. As significant a public figure as Schlesinger was, his time is past. When it comes to how to best address contemporary issues, contemporary historians should look to the future, not the past.


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