Blogs > Cliopatria > Students of History

Aug 9, 2006 8:30 pm

Students of History

At Slate, Fred Kaplan notes that Condoleeza Rice often invokes her status as a"student of history" to evade criticisms about the Bush administration's policies. As I've argued before, Rice is not the only member of the administration who relies on this formula. Both of the president's press secretaries -- as well as the president himself -- have often deferred judgment about the administration's mistakes to some distant day, when future historians will supposedly tell us whether Bush was right or wrong.

Kaplan is right to criticize this maneuver as basically evasive. On a deeper level, though, it's incongruous with other aspects of the Bush administration's worldview. When Rice or Bush defer to historians to judge their present actions, they seem to be endorsing a ramshackle version of epistemological and moral relativism. What seems right now, they seem to be saying, may not seem right later. And implicitly, they are also saying more than that. What seems wrong now may be judged right later, which means that what seems wrong now may actually be right.

It's a species of argument -- a kind of radical historicism about judgments of value -- that you would expect President Bush and his intellectual affiliates to oppose in the culture wars. In fact, while the administration strikes a skeptical historicist pose about its own shortcomings, it simultaneously makes broad claims about the universal birthrights of all peoples in all ages. But if Rice and Bush were aware of the tension between these two lines of argument, they would find themselves in the same kind of philosophical dilemma that has long bedeviled liberal pragmatists like Richard Rorty. The dilemma is this: if the"right" course of action is defined by nothing more than the consensus of a social group in the present, so that normative judgments can always be revised later just by virtue of it being later, then how does one simultaneously affirm certain values as transcendently valuable, no matter where you live or what year it is? Rice and Bush are willing to allow future historians to judge the wisdom of their policies, but they are unwilling to allow future historians to judge the rightness of their ideals. But you can't have it both ways forever: at some point you have to make an argument for why others -- even future historians -- should share your ideals, and by the same token, at some point you have to defend your attempts to realize those ideals. The fact that historians often reevaluate past decisions cannot justify abstention from judgment in the here and now.

Probably, though, I'm reading too much substance into what is basically a form of spin. Still, it's a seductive kind of spin because I think it resonates with the views of many Americans about history. History, in a very common view,"just goes to show you" that"you never know." That's the thesis of many an undergraduate history essay. Once upon a time everyone thought abolitionists were crazy; now they are heroes. Go figure! Once upon a time alchemists were geniuses; now everyone thinks they are crazy. Wild, huh? In other words, the Big Lesson that history teaches is basically banal: things change, time passes, opinions shift. As long as this is the only lesson we're allowed to learn as"students of history," we've really learned nothing except that"you never know." You think I'm crazy now, but maybe one day I'll be considered a genius. You think you're a genius now, but look out! Historians may think you're crazy.

I'm drawing a caricature here, of course. In reality there's something to admire even in this caricature. It's true that history should inspire humility about ourselves and a readiness to admit that our own cherished ideas could prove to be wrong. All critical thinking -- not just history -- ought to cultivate those virtues. But those virtues do not vitiate the critical thinking that brought them to fruition. Recognizing our fallibility as thinkers does not render thinking futile.

I'm afraid, though, that more than one student walks away from contemporary history courses with the opposite impression. Our job as history teachers is, on some level, to impress our students with how different the past was from the present. And we are happy if they also make the leap to realizing that the present will soon be past, and potentially very different from the future. But as a teacher, I will also have failed if students therefore throw their hands in the air as Rice seems to be doing. If it's possible for highly educated people to still believe that being a"student of history" just means"you never know," then in some sense we are failing as teachers of history.

So, in what started off as a piece of political commentary, I'll close by asking for pedagogical suggestions: I think most history teachers are adept at bringing students to a realization of how much things change over time, how different now is from then, and how different the future may be from the now. That's probably the easiest thing for us to do. It's the next step -- teaching students how to use the past to understand or influence the present -- that is harder, pedagogically, to take. But if we're not taking that step, or articulating to our students clearly what we think being a"student of history" is, then we risk creating a future generation of leaders who continue to invoke"history" as little more than a covering exculpation for all their mistakes. So I'll ask you, as someone just beginning a teaching career, do you address the Big Questions about what history teaches in your undergraduate classes? If you do, please share how. (Cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.)

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Jonathan Dresner - 8/13/2006

Thanks, Oscar. I knew I was taking too narrow a view of things. I'm glad we can count on Iraqi help in our hour of need in the early 22nd century....

Survival aside, though, WWII didn't work out all that well for the British: lost most of their empire in the aftermath themselves.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/12/2006

"I'm trying to think, honestly, of cock-ups so complete as our MidEast policy which turned out OK in the end."

Perhaps the British loss of the American colonies eventually being redeemed by our aid in WWII?

Of course, waiting for such a benefit may take patience.

Jared M Bjornholm - 8/11/2006

I agree with Caleb that there is something very specious about the appeals to the judgement of future historians, but I think it has more to do with how incompatible these are with their attitude towards the actual practice of history. Specifically, they use the bugbear "historical revisionism" as if revisionism is just anti-Americanism in disguise. At that hypothetical moment when a historian looks back and says "wow, that Iraq war was kind of a bad idea," administration defenders can say "how dare you question the wisdom of a president! You weren't even there!" So it's a way of avoiding accountability not only now, but in the future as well.

Your pedagogical question is very important; I'm also at the beginning of a teaching career, and I'm ashamed that I haven't thought about this question more. My quick answer is that the notion that the past is different from the present is a much more radical idea than most people think. It's not just that humans were once foolish enough to think that lead could be turned into gold and that certain people could own other people. It also suggests that much of what we think is unchangeable is not, including much of human nature. I'd like students to walk out of my class aware that the world is constructed to a much larger degree than they thought. Similar to Jonathan's idea, I suppose, but the emphasis is on questioning the inevitability of the world around us.

Caleb McDaniel - 8/10/2006

Thanks for the comments.

You both may be right that Rice and company are talking mainly about the need to postpone judgment about policies until their long-term consequences are clear. Reading back over the quotes that Kaplan cites, I agree that is the more charitable (and perhaps more accurate) reading of her statements.

I don't have a problem with saying that sometimes it takes time and patience to judge whether a policy has been effective. What does trouble me (and what troubles Kaplan too, I think) is when that appeal to time and patience becomes a rote and only response to criticisms of present policies. Administration spokespeople seem to resort to this appeal whenever it's pointed out to them that the effects of a policy are already open to criticism, when the consequences of their actions have already started to cast doubt on them. To simply say, when that criticism is made, that the current mess may be outweighed in the long term by other effects, does strike me as somewhat evasive, especially when little evidence is offered that things will improve other than a vague historical claim that sometimes seemingly bad policies age well.

That said, I agree that it's not fair just to cherry pick quotes that place one's critics in the most uncharitable light, even though the temptation to do that is one that I often have a hard time resisting.

Thanks also, Jonathan, for the pedagogical suggestions.

Dale B. Light - 8/10/2006

Kaplan's charge goes far beyond simple evasion of criticism. He argues that invoking an historical perspective reveals a horrendous disregard for the human consequences of administration policies. This is simply unfair. Noting that the administration's policies in the Near East have long term objectives and expressing hopefulness regarding the consequences of those long-term processes, in no way implies evasion of responsibility for short term results. Kaplan, and other critics, try to make it an either/or proposition and it isn't.

It is quite possible to focus simultaneously on both the forest and the trees -- isn't that what serious historians try to do as a matter of course?

Jonathan Dresner - 8/9/2006

if the "right" course of action is defined by nothing more than the consensus of a social group in the present, so that normative judgments can always be revised later just by virtue of it being later, then how does one simultaneously affirm certain values as transcendently valuable, no matter where you live or what year it is?

I don't think they're appealing to social norms at all, but to the putative long-term effectiveness of policy decisions. What looked like a good idea at the time (Bolshevism, as an alternative to tsarism, say) in the long run turned out to be a pretty lousy direction; what seemed like a bad idea (Mutual Assured Destruction, perhaps?) can have excellent outcomes given the fullness of time.

I'm trying to think, honestly, of cock-ups so complete as our MidEast policy which turned out OK in the end.

There is a tension between pragmatism and idealism as well, of course, but it's a different sort of problem.

On the pedagogical side, I usually make the point at least once a semester that history is not a natural science: what looks like tides and "forces" and "trends" are really millions of individual decisions, accumulated and shared (or lost) knowledge, and that very little happens that isn't done by someone.

Pragmatism is important, but pragmatism is not fatalism.