Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Why "The Obama History Project" is Not History

Can today's historian assess Obama's legacy?
Yesterday I sat in my office with Katy, a very bright junior history major who just returned to Messiah College after spending the Fall semester at Oxford University.  

"So was it a life-transforming experience?," I asked her.

Katy smiled and said, "I can't answer that right now.  Ask me five or ten years from now."

Her answer exposed my bad historical question.  (We obviously trained her well in the History Department at Messiah College). Katy understood that she could only evaluate the "life-transforming" nature of her Oxford experience in the context of her larger life story.  She needed to get some chronological space between Oxford and the kind of evaluation I asked her to make.

My conversation with Katy came to mind today as I read about New York Magazine's "The Obama History Project."

The magazine has collected a very impressive list of fifty-three historians to respond to a questionnaire about "how Obama and his administration will be viewed 20 years from now."  The list includes Joyce Appleby, Andrew Bacevich, Ed Baptist, Mike Davis, Mary Dudziak, Michael Douglass, Annette Gordon-Reed, David Hollinger, Thomas Holt, David Kennedy, James Kloppenberg, Kevin Kruse, Jackson Lears, Jill Lepore, James Livingston, Lisa McGirr, Nell Painter, Daniel Rodgers, and Harry Stout.  

I have no problem with historians assessing contemporary politics.  It's a free country.  Most historians jump at the chance to be public intellectuals.  But it is hard to say that any of them are actually functioning as "historians" by responding to New York Magazine's questionnaire.  Political pundits? Maybe.  Prophets?  Perhaps. But not historians.

Should historians try to assess the Obama legacy?  Of course. But let's wait at least ten years, preferably more.

This piece also reminded me of friends, family members, and students who asked me to evaluate the historical significance of the events of September 11, 2001 only a day or two after the terrorist attacks took place. 

Question: "So John, as an American historian with a Ph.D, what is the historical significance of 9-11?"

Answer: "I have no idea."

While I could certainly try to compare the magnitude of the attacks on 9-11 to other attacks on U.S. soil, such as the War of 1812 or Pearl Harbor, I could not with any degree of authority assess the legacy or significance of this horrible act of terrorism.

The editors of New York Magazine understand this problem.  Here is how they begin their introduction to "The Obama History Project":

"It's a fool's errant you're involved in," warned Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood when approached recently by this magazine to predict Barack Obama's historical legacy.  "We live in a fog, and historians decades from now will tell their society what was happening in 2014.  But we don't know the future.  No one in 1952, for example, could have predicted the reputation of Truman a half-century later or so later.

Wood is right, of course.  Historians are experts on the past, not the future.  But sometimes the wide-angle perspective they inhabit can be useful in understanding the present. And so, on the eve of Obama's penultimate State of the Union address, we invited a broad range of historians--academic and popular--to play a game.

You can read all the completed questionnaires here.  I did not have the time to read them all, so I do not know if any of these historians addressed the problem of historical thinking I have mentioned above.  I hope so.

When viewed from the vantage point of the historian, many of these questions look downright absurd.  For example: 

What single action could Obama realistically do before the end of his term that would make the biggest positive difference to his historical legacy?

Will Obama’s reputation have improved or declined in 20 years?

Which of Obama’s speeches and phrases will be the most enduring?

Will the image of Obama overshadow his accomplishments, in the manner of JFK?

These historians know better.  The present always shapes the questions historians ask about the past. For example, Obama's reputation in 20 years will be shaped by the ways that historians of that day find a useable past in his administration.  Since we don't know the issues that the United States will be facing in 20 years, we cannot possibly know how the decisions Obama made between 2009 and 2017 will attract the attention of future historians trying to use the past to make sense of the present.

Maybe New York Magazine should have called this little experiment "The Obama Prophecy Project."