“As someone who studied history…”

I recently came across (more accurately, found in my inbox) a strange item about Thomas Jefferson, which you can probably find for yourself by googling the phrase “Thomas Jefferson was a very remarkable man.” The essential gist of it is: conservatives are right, because Jefferson says so.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole thing is how it runs down the Founding Father’s resumé of academic accomplishments, repeatedly stressing his knowledge and broad study. What inspired this post is its reference to Jefferson’s study of history. The message is, this man Studied History, so he Knows What’s Up. Actually, that’s almost literally what it says:

Thomas Jefferson knew because he himself studied the previous failed attempts at government. He  understood actual history, the nature of God, his laws and the nature of man. That happens to be way more than what most understand today. Jefferson really knew his stuff.

This chain email is not really all that interesting, in and of itself. It’s just another viral tract floating from inbox to inbox. But its focus on history is something one often sees in political discourse. And phrases like “actual history” fascinate me. Its use gives insight into how history functions in public discourse, and provides a launch-point for explaining my view of how the field should so function.

We have to get an understanding of what is meant by “history” in contexts like this. Usually, it’s found in statements like, “If you’d actually look at history, you’d see that my idea is correct.” As if they were saying, “If you’d actually climb the mountain, you’d see what’s at the top.” History, here, is a discrete and well-defined consumable commodity which imparts a special insight as if, having checked off the “Studied History” box on your resume, you have become A Person Who’s Studied History and therefore You Know What’s Up. The fallacy of argument from authority is familiar, but not really applicable here: there are, after all, authorities, people who are experts in a field and can be relied upon to make accurate statements about it. What these statements attempt to do is establish the credentials of authority: in this scheme, history is a known record which only requires studying to know what really happened since humans first started leaving comprehensible artifacts of their activities. Unfortunately, no such broad and vague credentials are really possible.

This isn’t some kind of pomo “nothing can be known for certain” couch trip, but it’s not that simple. Consider the sciences: in science, researchers test hypotheses against evidence to see if their explanations hold up, and if their findings can be reproduced, then they have added to the body of scientific knowledge. Other scientists accept their findings and it becomes part of the consensus body of knowledge that we can be pretty sure accurately describes reality. But new discoveries happen all the time, and sometimes this results in revisions of existing understanding. This means that the body of scientific knowledge is “provisionally certain.” We can be pretty sure that experts in a field know what they’re talking about in their field, but we aren’t relying on their personal authority, nor upon some generic and immutable “scientific credentials,” only on their proven knowledge of what’s been discovered.

In other words, it’s not as if scientists “know science” and thus have some special insight into reality. They know what science has uncovered and this gives them an understanding of those discoveries. The provisional nature of this understanding means that there’s room for disagreement, which means that while there is a body of scientific knowledge, certification of one’s understanding  of it does not make one an instant authority on everything scientific and one’s opinion a justification for any number of actions, ethical stances, or policies. If someone said, “John’s a scientist, so I think he knows what happens when a cell divides,” this would be imprecise, but probably reasonable. If someone said, “John’s a scientist and he thinks evolution is a false, so take that school science curricula!” we’re on shakier ground. Is John a biologist? How many other biologists agree with him? If his position is a minority one, then what evidence supports his ideas that other scientific theories have not accounted for? It’s not just that Dr. John is going against the scientific consensus, it’s that his authority as “a scientist” is being used to support a public policy goal, rather than just a claim about how the world works according to what science has shown.

When it comes to history, this sort of generic authoritative certification is just as, or even more, popular, but harder to make because history is not a science. Historical evidence, typically writing and other artifice, needs to be interpreted for meaning both from its author’s perspective and the researcher’s, requiring subjective judgment calls buttressed by the researcher’s stated reasoning. Sometimes evidence is quantifiable, but not always, and where quantitative analysis is possible, the numbers may be suspect or incomplete or require extrapolation, based on the extent and quality of known primary sources. Narrative sees as much use as disinterested hypotheses. There are so many factors that go into any historical process or event, so many varied outcomes, and so many possible perspectives and approaches to even the narrowest foci, that it’s really very hard to come up with universal rules, grand unifying theories, and overarching meta-narratives. And yet, people act as if there is some settled, discrete “actual history” that we can refer to for authority on politics, economics, ethics, human nature…

If someone claims to have derived an opinion, say some political conclusion, from a study of history, we have to be careful and ask, what argument is being made? It’s not enough to just say, “because I understand history,” for the reasons enumerated: this claim of generic credentials boils down to a sort of proxy argument from authority. But even when authority is genuine, one should still take care. Consider this recent article on the abuse of the idea of “American exceptionalism,” in this specific case by politician Newt Gingrich, who holds a PhD in history. The authors note his authority, but:

Newt’s dissertation, never published, was titled: “Belgian Educational Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.” We would not challenge his authority in this area. But he claims to be an authority on U.S. history, where his reading appears to be rather selective.

Historians usually have a tight focus to their studies, located at a three-dimensional point on the axes of location, period, and perspective, e.g. the politics of post-colonial Africa, the Church in France in the 15th century, 20th century American mass movements, or the wars of ancient Greece. When historians speak about things that happened in the past within the purview of their focus of study, or in related fields, you can be reasonably sure they know what they’re talking about. Beyond that, and especially when using history as a basis for a political point, it is simply not enough to point to credentials and a status of having “studied history.” The actual argument, supported by facts and with attention to context, is what matters.

When challenged to provide this, someone making such a history-based claim will likely have vague knowledge of certain historical events and possibly general interpretations, but any general statement or conclusion will have to contend with counterexamples and alternate explanations. Without knowing the argument, we don’t even get the chance to see how it fares in this contest. For example: If you look at the progression of the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and compare to the radical left in the 1960s and 1970s, you can observe that once the issues that galvanized the respective movements (the right to vote and the Vietnam War, respectively) were resolved, the movements fragmented and became less effective. This is possibly a valid general conclusion to draw about mass movements with a strong focus. It would be hasty, though, to simply say, “I’ve studied political movements in history, so I know the Tea Party is going to fizzle out when they get what they want.” There are some indications that this might be happening. But if the argument rests only on two movements in the US, it would ignore some compelling counterexamples: communists and fascists didn’t fade away when they seized power. What are the relevant differences between all the things we’re comparing: women’s suffrage, communism, fascism, 1960s American leftism, the Tea Party? Is locational or cultural context (i.e., the U.S. vs. elsewhere) important? Can we draw out some new general categories, like “radical political movements” and “special interest reform movements,” to refine our understanding? In which camp do we place the Tea Party?

All this consideration for a very specific argument about very specific subjects, and yet, the author of the piece on Jefferson expects us to believe that a study of “actual history” imparts a unique insight into the nature of all governments! Of note as well is that embedded in this generic certification is an implicit swipe at some undefined alternate opinion: “actual history” as opposed, presumably, to some kind of “fake history.” In their essay, “More Than Great White Men,” Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser note that this is a typical attack on social history, an attack often seen in political contexts. Social history, the study of ordinary people on a wide scale, gets cast as some phony or subversive fad in contrast to “traditional” history, here understood as a nationalist history focusing on big names and pivotal events. Given that social history includes the stories of those often left out of “traditional” accountings of history, such as people of color, women, the poor, the working class, radicals and subversive movements, etc., one can see the ugly edge in the implicit snobbery of a phrase like “actual history” when applied to a Great White Man of American history in the context of a public policy argument.

What does it mean to say Jefferson studied history? If he was a student of history, then he read the works of historians published up until the time he lived. He had a good understanding of history as the historians of his time understood it. If he was an historian, then he did original research, analyzed his findings, and came up with an explanatory narrative about the events he studied. In neither case can we assume that the understanding of history he derived is the final word. The field has moved on since the 18th century. Other historians have added their conclusions to the body of knowledge. When Jefferson said, “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government,” (which, it should be noted, is not something he ever actually said, which goes for many of the quotes attributed to him, but let’s accept it for the sake of argument), what history did he read? By which historians? Or from what sources? What was the historical argument about government’s size and “goodness,” and how did it define “good government” and “size,” and did it account for other factors that might affect a government’s operations?

We also can’t forget that peoples’ opinions are formed in their environment. Their outlook on the world comes from their society and experiences. While history can give us insights into how other people have lived and thought, these are insights filtered through our own perspectives, and may not account for future developments. What are we to make of the Jefferson quote that, “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt  as Europe”? Let’s look at its full form:

I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. (From here.)

Let’s leave aside that the Europe of the 18th century is not the Europe of the 21st and the implications this has for an assessment of its “corruption.” We live in an industrial civilization; Jefferson did not. In his time the American frontier had a vast expanse beyond it; today it has been closed for over a century (which, in fairness, probably did have a profound effect on the country). He lived in a time of family farms and small shops, a decentralized agrarian economy, with what seemed like limitless room to grow into. A good classicist like many other Enlightenment thinkers, the ideal of the farmer-soldier of Republican Rome probably informed his reverence for the virtue of agrarian living. It’s likely that even today, people who live in rural areas may be uncomfortable in cities (and vice versa). So should we take Jefferson’s opinion as an argument for deurbanization? A relocation from city to countryside? What an oddly Maoist conclusion…

Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly an intelligent and learned man, and a great statesman. Still, we cannot take it as a given that his having “studied actual history” gives his opinions some mystical weight. Many people can study history. Not all of them will agree with each other about what conclusions to draw. What counts is how they argue from history.


2 thoughts on ““As someone who studied history…”

  1. Well written. We do ourselves a disservice, I think, when the only history education most of us get is in high school and labeled with the generic “History.” We are given the impression that it’s a singular, boring subject that is simply to be Survived. When one actually considers the metric tonnage of History to be studied, it is actually quite daunting. It makes me wonder how much context we can actually draw from history when it comes to making forward decisions. With so much history to consider and so much of that, perhaps, controversially understood, it makes it hard to think any one person or even a small group of people could provide any useful historical perspective when it comes to the large challenges of modern society. (I’m not saying we can’t learn from history, I’m only trying to understand the proper usefulness of history)

  2. Thanks! It’s almost a necessary evil, the monolithizing. Textbooks are generally tertiary sources: syntheses of academic work on primary sources, and broad-based ones at that. So writing one is an attempt to summarize large numbers of individual studies on narrow or specific parts of history. This complicates the issue of what the “best” or “proper” history to teach is, since honest and well-intentioned scholars can come up with very different ways of presenting the same information. At least, though, we should understand that diversity of expert opinion is different from school boards Bowdlerizing curricula intentionally. The remedy is a basic introduction to historiography, and along with it, textbooks that explicitly acknowledge both different perspectives and analytical frameworks and which point out differences of expert opinion. Good college textbooks do that already.

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