Sunday, January 20, 2013

Priming the Pump

[I thought I'd post some initial thoughts on Carl Becker's 1931 AHA presidential address to prime the pump. -Erin]
If you haven't read Becker's address yet, I encourage you to do so, even if you don't want to contribute your thoughts at this point. One of the things that struck me was how startling, even transgressive, his thoughts on the nature of the discipline would be to some of our students, to large swaths of the general public, and even to many within the confines of academic history. For instance:
  • To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian, but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will 'speak for themselves' is an illusion.”
  • Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none.”
  • It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.”
  • To set forth historical facts is not comparable to dumping a barrow of bricks. A brick retains its form and pressure wherever placed, but the form and substance of historical facts, having a negotiable existence only in literary discourse, vary with the words employed to convey them....It is thus not the undiscriminated fact, but the perceiving mind of the historian that speaks: the special meaning which the facts are made to convey emerges from the substance-form which the historian employs to recreate imaginatively a series of events not present to perception.”
  • Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman's mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
Beyond simply wanting to embroider half of this speech onto tea-towels and throw pillows, I find myself thinking about my obligation to the classroom full of Everymen and Everywomen in light of Becker's charge to us as historians. Becker describes a Mr. Everyman who practices a “history of everyday things” on the most intimate level – a man who daily gathers together the strands of history that help him make sense of his day, and his “specious present.” In many ways, this resonates with what many us practice as historians; we try to understand how people understood the world they lived in.
Becker argues, though, that we must engage with Mr. Everyman, because if we don't, he will ignore us. We must join with the rest of society as it uses history “to understand what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do.” And why not? Among other reasons, we are historians because we feel that the methods our discipline provides are the best for understanding the past. But as Becker shows, to draw lines between the past, the present, and the future is difficult, if not a waste of time, and I know that what I study is influenced by my present and helps me understand my world.
As a native Nutmegger at the flagship university in the state of Connecticut, as a historian of the Early Republic, and as a teacher getting ready to start another semester of the US I survey, I find myself pondering how to respond to Becker's argument. As a state, and as a nation, we find that our “specious present” has been violently enlarged in the past month, and as historians, we see and hear discussions of guns, the Constitution, the “Founding Fathers,” mental health, and on very rare occasions, even whiteness and masculinity. While we might see the relevance of history in everything we do, because of our training, there are times when the rest of the world actively – even desperately – turns to the past to make sense of the world, for better or worse. What role do we play, as teachers and scholars, in these debates?
I have thought about how I teach the Constitution, the composition and role of the militia in the United States, and the connection between guns and race in the 19th century. I don't talk about the 2nd amendment explicitly, but I'm wondering if I should. Now, you can make the argument that I shouldn't allow my teaching to be dictated by contemporary desires; after all, if historians only ever studied what society deemed valuable, our scholarship would look very different. But if Becker is right, and Mr. Everyman will ignore us if we ignore him, how do we engage instead? As teachers, as public intellectuals, as people who exist in society, how do we engage in the short- and long-term? Because we must, and to do that we must meet Mr. Everyman where he is – not by bending our scholarship and teaching to meet his mythology, per se, but by transforming our scholarship and teaching to reach him and be useful to him, and perhaps even to transform him.

No comments:

Post a Comment