Barbara D. Metcalf: History with Controversy, and History Without

Roundup: Talking About History

[Barbara D. Metcalf (professor emerita, University of California at Davis; and Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellow, University of Michigan) is president of the AHA.]

Recently, popular television personality Stephen Colbert invited the distinguished U.S. historian and former president of the AHA, Eric Foner, to appear on his nightly Comedy Central cable channel program, The Colbert Report, a rollickingly satirical talk show.1 The subject for “debate” was the annual review and revisions of school textbooks adopted by the elected Texas School Board. This year the board focused on history. None of the members of the board is a professional historian, and the board’s goals, shaped by the particular conservative values shared by their majority, are clearly not those of the mainstream historical profession. In spoofing the current controversy over the Texas School Board decisions, Colbert had a field day. He ominously warned that, despite “the triumph” in Texas, there were still “plenty of liberal text books out there,” and, flourishing a copy of Give Me Liberty!, he welcomed its author, none other than Eric Foner, “to answer for his liberal crimes.”...

Stephen Colbert identified a particular problem in engaging with controversial subjects, pointing out to Eric Foner that, after all, the Texas Board was only “trying to give [the students] a moral history.” Not only figures in public life but many others come to history primarily as a source of moral teachings. Keith C Barton and Jennifer Hauver James in their essay on teaching religion in secondary schools remind us, moreover, that some come to history with a conviction that “Providence” or “Divine Will” is history’s only motor.

The issue of history as moral proof and as a moral roadmap has great resonance in the public life of India, my own field of study, where competing versions of history have justified British colonialism, shaped the nationalist movement, contributed to the country’s partition, justified the status claims of those in power, and contested the histories of those with vested interests in favor of the disadvantaged. Writing and re-writing history has been a political project at the national level; and interpretations of history have been used by caste, regional, and religious groups to assert their place within the larger society. A recent article in Perspectives on History reviews precisely these issues about the place of history in India’s public life, citing among others the opinion of the distinguished Indian historian, Neeladri Bhattacharya, that, although historians can try to shape the historical arguments that are advanced in public life, “they could not deny the right of the citizens to express themselves in public, operating with their own sense of history.”5 Particularly when these histories are emancipatory for the disadvantaged, would it be ethical contest them? But what about a situation when “folk” histories serve to incite violence or marginalize some section of the citizenry? Sometimes it is historians who must assert that history is not always the relevant frame of reference for contemporary public policy and pubic actions.

Historians, that is to say, have to be humble; they have to remember that histories are always incomplete and complicated. But they also have to assert that some histories are better than others, and that historians always have to engage controversy. In doing so, they make clear—as the essays in this issue demonstrate—that, for students and interlocutors in multiple contexts, an informed historical perspective that does not shy away from controversial topics best illuminates the path to even such lofty goals as patriotism and emancipation....

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lawyer With HistoryMA - 5/27/2010

Thanks for a thoughtful article, Professor.

Your discussion re: the use of "God" to justify this or that in history was the best part; whenever I have brought up this subject, I am accused of "hating God" ... which is to say that I disagree with that particular critics VERSION of God (. . . and somehow I have escaped the verbal attack and any wrath of ANY version of God thereafter).