THE BLOG

Historians Step Behind The Plate

02/09/2015 01:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

In November, when an email alerted me to a talk at Columbia University about Jo Guldi and David Armitage's new book The History Manifesto, I practically ran through the cold rainy evening to get there on time. A manifesto about history today? In this age of expedience, when the latest digital blip of an idea is as hyped as a Fourth of July appliance sale, someone was finally going to stand up for Time and Perspective. I arrived early and nabbed one of the few remaining free chairs in the common room where the event was being held. People were soon sitting on the floor, leaning against a wall or packed into the tiny overhead balcony gallery. There was an anticipatory buzz as the authors, accompanied by various other historians, filtered in.

Armitage, a well-dressed Englishman, chair of Harvard's history department and the author of numerous books on intellectual history, sat down at the table at the front of the room, a bit flushed and beaming like a prince. In a few minutes, speaking quickly and articulately, he made a case for the return of the longue durée (long-term) narrative in history.

It was Fernand Braudel, a French historian, who developed the concept of long durée in the 1950s. If Braudel was right then, Armitage suggests in Manifesto, he was even more so now. Since the fifties, the humanities has suffered a decline in enrollment and diminished prestige. A thirty-year retreat by history and the social sciences into increasing specialization, intensely focused micro-histories and quantification has further marginalized the field, he argues. The moment has arrived for historians to recover a broader vision of time. The challenge for the contemporary historian, Armitage believes, is to take advantage of new tools, new troves of digital information and synthesize micro-histories into the context of the big story. By providing a fuller, deeper explanation of the past, historians may overcome the short-term thinking of today and provide more alternative paths for the future. They might also resume their proper place in the public sphere and their roles as advisors to public policy makers and civil servants, which they have largely ceded to economists. To further that end, it was essential, Armitage stressed during his talk, the new histories be available and understandable to non-academics (aha, I thought, that's me!). He held up the slim volume in front of him. It would make a good Christmas present, he said, though it was also available for free as a PDF online.

Armitage's presentation was largely confined to the processes of historical research and the evolution of trends within the field. You got the feeling that he did not want to step on anyone's toes, nor sound nostalgic nor, God forbid, grandiose. He was careful in delineating historians' prerogatives. It was left to Jo Guldi, his co-author, sitting next to him at the table along with three other academics, to bang the table, as it were, and expound on the political context of Manifesto. Guldi, younger, her face framed by long blond hair, first gracefully severed her perspective from Armitage's. He, the reputable administrator of Harvard's history department, facing declining enrollment and funding challenges, was in the "hot seat." Armitage had internal political constraints and institutional responsibilities that she, an assistant professor of history at Brown, a "junior scholar", as she put it, was free of. Indeed, Guldi was more forceful, adamantly injecting a note of political urgency to the talk. Her generation was painfully aware of the scientific community's warning that humanity had about ten years to slow climate change or face an ecological disaster. Worse, they had to watch as government and other public institutions remained politically paralyzed and unable to act. It was up to historians, she believed, to explain (to the scientists and the public at large) the historical-political process and help guide institutional reform.

She blamed the current situation in large part on the economists who, as policy advisors since the late 1970s, have played a powerful role in shaping national economic, environmental and cultural policies in Washington D.C. It was neoliberal, free market ideas promoting a for-profit, commoditized educational system that threatened the survival of the humanities. "We, in the humanities, are scared of our own demise," she confessed.

Armitage and Guldi urge historians to use their analytical tools and the available data to undermine - or as the academics call it, "destabilize" - the laissez-faire mythologies and false studies still being trumpeted by neoliberals today, even after the calamity of the Great Recession. Historians are able to uncover gaps in data and unnoticed bias relating to gender, social equality and race that may have skewed economic theories and blocked alternative, utopian vistas. The authors believe historians have special critical powers to interpret narratives and stage "interventions," in effect, to be arbiters and play the role of umpire - my words.

On the way out of the talk, I bought the book in the lobby. The History Manifesto soft-cover is slim enough to fit into your pocket (125 pages excluding the nearly 45 pages of notes) and easily read in an evening. But my initial fervor was dampened by my lack of expertise on the subject and I abandoned a draft blog I was writing about the event. Recently, though, I read an excellent review of Manifesto (and two other books on history) in The Nation. The essay, "Bonfire of the Humanities", by Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Harvard, is several thousand words long and delves into everything you ever wanted to know - or not - about how contemporary historians view history. I learned a lot, but it also re-kindled in me the excitement I felt that evening at Columbia. Oddly, Moyn's learned piece, inspired me to complete this, my layman's point of view.

I was prodded by this nagging feeling that Armitage and Guldi's expectations of historians, perhaps bridled by academic correctness, were too modest. If I may continue my overly simple analogy of the umpire, it seems to me that the role of the historian is to not only record the stats, the hits and runs, the strikes and balls, but also to describe the dynamics of the team's management and history, the atmosphere in the stadium, the composition and expectations of the spectators, the working conditions of the employees, the feeling of hope or desperation as the players step up to the plate. History is a description of the whole ballgame. It lets us know what's at stake, where we stand and who we are after it's all over. And yes it contains contradiction because to tell a story, you must have a point of view. You must at some point, despite your valiant efforts not to, shed the guise of objectivity and acknowledge what post modernism most taught us to beware of, our own subjectivity, our passions and our beliefs.