Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is not being stupid not enough?

There is a fascinating discussion over at Intellectual History "How Should Intellectual Historians Deal with Erroneous, Foolish, or Vicious Thought?" As Ben writes in the post, historians generally don't have a problem taking seriously egregiously wrong[1] ideas from the past and applying a more detached and objective approach to these ideas in order to establish their context, learn more about their adherents, and investigate their causes and effects.

However, what is the historian's role in shedding light on egregiously wrong ideas in the present?

In his brief post, Ben provides three things to think about as historians work to identify or otherwise confront wrong ideas in the present:
    1) "People do express opinions about the past that are simply wrong. And as historians, we have a responsibility, perhaps even a duty, to point out when people use bad history to bolster their arguments in public debate."
    2) "significant ideas that we happen to believe are wrong, inane, or even deeply evil should still be taken seriously."
    3) "Of course how we do this . . . is a more complicated question."
I certainly struggle with this stuff. In some of my own posts, I've grappled with similar issues: trying to understand the relationship of deistic beliefs to historical inquiry and the scientific process and recoiling at the kind of asinine ideas that historical ignorance can foster, among others.

I also have a long list of posts-in-process that I may never finish but that share the theme of "what the f#*k?!?!?! Do (Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin/Newt Gingrich/insert your favorite blowhard here) actually believe what they're spewing, or are they blatantly & cynically manipulating the historical record on purpose?"

I like what Tim Lacy has to say in response to Ben's post, as it's relevant to the question I continue to reflect upon -- namely "what is history?":
    Our job is to help tease through the hierarchy of causes and sort out the probability of relevance. We're experts on the probability of relevance.
[1] By "wrong" Ben seems to be suggesting both ideas that are "deeply incorrect" in an objective sense (an example from my own area of study would be the miasmatic theory of disease etiology) and ideas that are wrong in a moral sense (i.e., slavery).



  1. James,

    Thanks for the related post---and for visiting USIH. I don't have any sure answers to Ben's questions.

    For what it's worth, at the beginning of all my history survey courses I ask students to reflect on the "What is history?" question. Their answers are not always great, but I feed them with alternative responses. Sometimes I think the assignment is as much for me---to remind me of the possibilities of what I'm doing as an instructor---as it is for them. Even so, I do hope to spark their deeper interest in the field by posing big, hard, and serious questions about the subject.

    - TL

  2. I do hope to spark their deeper interest in the field by posing big, hard, and serious questions about the subject.

    For sure. I find it fascinating the range of student opinions when I give my lecture "what is history?" One of these days I'll have the time to write an entire post on this topic, but some of the responses I find most fascinating include "history is written by the winners" and "history is just the boring recitation of dates and rich white men."

    Another dynamic I find in my students is a propensity for many of them to want to express things in terms of what they think we ought to do, what we need to do, what we should do. I remind them that the class I teach is the Sustainable History Project, and our goal is to identify specific examples of what individuals and organizations have already accomplished toward their stated goals of achieving what they themselves define as "sustainable."

    Anyway, more on that one of these days!