Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History sidles up to listeners with the faux-charming tagline “Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” This plea-cum-disclaimer is an act of charity, perhaps, for a school subject supposedly demanding rote memorization of facts and dates. The podcast relates no catechism of presidential greatness, no royal hemophiliac genealogies, no battles that transformed the world—which is all to the good. But patient students of Gladwell soon learn that this “second chance” is not the sort of exercise in critical self-interrogation that is the calling card of historical revisionism. It is, rather, a series of uncritical wallows in the skylarking world of social science, of the type Gladwell is known for.
This is the first-order genre challenge that historical inquiry under the Gladwell brand presents: a podcast about history that seems to have no interest whatsoever in the stuff. In its first season (it was recently renewed for another) Revisionist History featured a three-episode centerpiece: a gambol through the American educational system, focusing on the ways that it fails low-income students. (Of note was “Food Fight,” which offered a didactic tour of the cafeteria fare of Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges. In the zero-sum world of elite higher education, apparently, skimping on comestibles allows Vassar to provide more need-based scholarships.) But what does any of this have to do with the past—with the people who lived there, with their struggles and triumphs?
This matters a great deal. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,” wrote Marx, explaining that people are born into “circumstances” they can’t choose for themselves. Yet historians also believe in allowing the people of the past to determine who they were and how their ideas ordered their worlds. Analyzing the past requires you to see a particular set of circumstances from someone else’s point of view—knowing full well that the gulf between then and now will prevent you from truly understanding them and what they faced.
Still, the point is, you have to try.
This empathy is the essence of academic historical methodology today, and it’s also a hallmark of good popular history. But in the episodes of Revisionist History that actually deal with history, people of the past come across as basically the same as we are today. Neither Gladwell nor his listeners have to dig very deeply into radically different mindsets, or to exert themselves much to achieve a cross-temporal state of empathy. ...