New History?

I have been exploring two themes recently in my posts. On the one hand, I am concerned about the current state of civilization, that is, the delicate fiber that holds together diverse peoples out of respect for law, tradition, and for one another. On the other hand, I have explored many of the problems in higher education that seem to somehow have had an adverse effect on the world outside the ivory towers that once protected those inside from prying eyes. I have been especially concerned about the movement called “postmodernism” that has taken over in our universities and which rests on the central tenet that there is no such thing as truth, only “texts.”

A major movement within the academy since the late 1960s has been “New History,” one of the bastard offspring of postmodernism. It is based on the notion that history is simply another form of literature and historians are no longer to be held to the standards and rigor that ruled the discipline for generations, demands for evidence and the desire to approximate the truth about the past as much as possible. Footnotes and reliable references are no longer required. Again, since there is no such thing as truth, there cannot possibly be any accurate depiction of the past. The new historian, therefore, is free to wing it, make things up and tell it like he or she would like it to have been. New history is more about the historians than it is about history itself.

One of the most prominent historians to have defended Old History against the onslaught of the New Historians is Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in past posts. She has done a remarkable job of seeking to defend truth against the attacks of the subjectivists and relativists, but one has the sense that she is spitting against the wind — and she knows it. In any event, she has written a number of books attempting to show the absurdity of rejecting standards of evidence and attempts to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible and one of those books, The New History and The Old addresses the topic directly. In that book, a collection of her papers, she recounts the following anecdote about a Conference she attended in 1969 when New History was aborning and was regarded by most historians as merely a passing fad, a novelty soon to be dismissed. As Himmelfarb tells us:

“. . .what the history profession needed was a “little anarchy.” This . . . was the great merit of the new history — its variety, openness, and pluralism. . . . .there is no meeting ground between [different ways of approaching history] and there need not be. All that was necessary was the tolerance to permit “different people doing different kinds of things in different ways.”

What we have here is the wheels of an academic discipline falling off. The notion that two or three or four historians are free to reconstruct events in accordance with any loose principles whatever, drawing on psychology, anthropology, science, or any other unrelated discipline and every one of those views is somehow legitimate and is to be respected by historians across the boards is on its face absurd. Tolerance is here carried out to the extreme of denial that there is anything we ought to agree about, anything beyond different ways of doing things. Anything goes. We are intolerant if we do not make room for the absurd and the outrageous. There is no truth available, only opinion.

Traditionally, the various academic disciplines each had its own distinctive manner of approaching problems that require reasonable solutions. There has always been disagreement about the best way to approach those problems and one never really expected any two thinkers in diverse academic disciplines to agree with one another about which is the better way. Hell, it was seldom the case that two academics within the same discipline agreed about much of anything! But that disagreement was the key to keeping lines of communication open and encouraging the exchange of diverse opinions and theories which were designed to eventually lead us all closer to the truth about the human condition. Dialogue requires open minds and a conviction that there is a goal to be achieved in the end, no matter how long it takes. Difference of opinion was a good thing because it made us careful about the way we conducted research and put together evidence and arguments. Difference was a means to an end, not the end in itself; but it was required in order to eventually reach some agreement about what is true and what is not. With New History, as Himmelfarb notes,

“Two historians working on the same subject are apt to produce books so disparate that they might be dealing with different events centuries and continents apart.”

What has occurred, not only in history but in all of the humanistic disciplines and the social sciences as well, is that they are all dangerously close to becoming as like one another as possible in their unanimous rejection of the notion that there is a truth worth pursuing, rejecting in one way or another the conviction that if one applied the techniques of the various disciplines one could at least hope to reach some degree of accord about what is and what is not the case. In a word, it used to be held that there is an answer to every question, but that answer must be sought by each thinker in accordance with the rules laid down within the discipline he or she has chosen to pursue, different ways to achieve a common goal, as it were. The current relativism, the rejection of the notion that there is any truth, blurs the distinctions among the various disciplines and tells us that it really doesn’t matter what anyone says about much of anything because there is no point in reasonable pursuit of truth since there is no such thing as reason or truth anyway. There is no point in searching for a common meeting ground on which we could all stand in search for something beyond personal opinion. The most persuasive or colorful writer or speaker wins.

Needless to say, this relativism has found its way into the world outside of the academy and we now find ourselves surrounded by such things as “alternative facts” and the notion that truth is a matter of who shouts loudest and is able to shut down opposing points of view. Might makes truth.



8 thoughts on “New History?

  1. This reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ words, which I read last night and will share a sample but deserves a much-longer one from The Case for Christianity: “…None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.”

    What happened here with the earthquake is what prompted my search for this paragraph, which is shortened here to the gist, “It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”

    Hugh, you have chosen the right side….

  2. Hugh, you note one of the problems with reporting history is the perspective of the author. We see a very Anglican and Americanized version of history here, but we lose sight of a more holistic perspective. To me, that is why we need to seek as much objectivity in history as possible and to identify where biases occur. One bias we need to be mindful of is “winners write the history,” but may white wash their atrocities. That was one reason I was so intrigued by Stephen Solomon’s book on “Water” as he showed the rise and fall of civilizations based on their power and use of water.

    I agree what troubles me is when folks today try to diminish what happened based on their feelings today. The white washing of history sanctioned by Texas school book writers is a good example. The desire to white wash AP History exams. We must guard against this and ask those who review history to do so with a high sense of integrity. There have been terrific pieces looking back at the lives of Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, etc. that add value. Also, efforts to discuss the maltreatment of Native Americans and African-Americans are essential as it shows how we acted and shines a spotlight on poor behaviors.

    And, I won’t even go into folks trying to change history of just a few years ago as if it did not happen.

    Great post, Keith

    • The New Historians don’t believe in objectivity in history. That’s the problem. They are moving in the opposite direction! The Old Historians held up objectivity as an ideal to be approached but probably never reached. Bias always enters in, but the idea was to squeeze it out as much as possible. No longer!

      • Hugh, I agree a good historian wants to be accurate. That should be a bellweather on who is worth their salt. A good historian would note that while John Muir was a forerunner on environmental issues, he was also a racist. For all his heroism, Charles Lindbergh sympathized with some Aryan leanings that caused him to be vilified. He flew in the Pacific campaign as a volunteer to make amends. But, most history books are kinder to these two men.

        To me, when objective writers try to show the whole picture it is imperative to get it right. Again, great post. Keith

    • hi amigos.. just reached ‘home plate’ back in mindo cloud forest after three weeks on the coast.. while driving today, i thought of how little I was taught about the true history of ‘white man’s’ invasion of the Americas .. ‘Conquered’ sort of glosses over the history of ‘going in with the facade of peace and then tricking/slaughtering Indians, destroying relics, texts, and even melting down the golden artifacts in order to gild the churches built on ancient sites… there’s no telling what history was lost long long long ago – we are all the losers by not knowing the true stories…

      what in the world will happen with future generations.. how much will be toned down to make it easy to swallow and not provide the true graphic story? lumped together as ‘the people of the planet’, we must seem like barbarians to any advanced ‘et.’ that might be watching us!

      • To be fair, New History tends to focus on such slights and prides itself on removing the blindfolds that past histories have placed on us regarding the terrible things we have done in the past. People like Himmelfarb just think they have tended to reduce all of history to talk about the plight of the victims and the “small people” who have too often been ignored — often leading to distortions of past events. She seeks a balance that reconstructs the past honestly, with all its blemishes, and worries that the reconstructions of the New Historians are too one-sided and subjective, ignoring the benefits of the past and the great men and women who have shaped events by focusing exclusively on the sins that have been committed and the “small people” who have been too long ignored and about whom we know so very little.

      • reconstructs the past honestly, with all its blemishes,’ — even though a lot of pain is mixed with the positive, yes, an honest review of what’s happened is what any student or person with ‘interest’ would appreciate! thank you hugh!

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