Getting the Right History vs. Getting the History Right

tags: education, historians, history, academia, Chronicle of Higher Education, public engagement

L.D. Burnett is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. Dr. Burnett is an American cultural and intellectual historian with a PhD in Humanities/History of Ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas and an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford University.

It has come to my attention that an English professor with a forthcoming book to sell has been Working on His Brand by publishing an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that pooh-poohs historians for our quaint infatuation with facticity.

In turn, the Chronicle has been working on its traffic numbers by alternately blurbing this article on Twitter as critiquing historians for our fondness for “potted facts” or for our “fact-grubbing.”

You see, historians who spend time in the public sphere citing and explaining archival evidence which refutes the fatuous and false narratives of, say, Dinesh D’Souza are simply wasting our time, the article argues.  We have obviously never heard of Hayden White, who – you all will be amazed to learn! – had key insights about the work that narrative does in shaping accounts of the past for particular ends.  So, for example, historians of Medieval Europe who seize upon the erroneous proclamation that Walls Were the Solution to Social Ills in order to offer a better informed and more nuanced explanation of what life in the Middle Ages was actually like are missing the point entirely.  Nobody cares whether these polemical assertions are true, and fact-checking them will do nothing to halt their power.

Other recent polemics aimed at historians have followed a similar line.  There was the “Theory Revolt” flash-in-the-pan manifesto, which mocked the field for its infatuation with empiricism and its privileging of archival evidence over Theory – a term the manifesto never bothered to define, either because it was addressing only initiates to the mystery or because, like obscenity, Theory is something we all know when we see it.

Read entire article at Society for U.S. Intellectual History

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