Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why I Still Stand By My Gordon Wood Post

As some of you may recall, I wrote a post last week on Gordon Wood's essay in The Weekly Standard.

I want to thank all the historians who e-mailed privately with encouraging words. I also realize that my post was not popular among many in my profession. The community of academic historians does not tolerate dissent very well.

The discussion was especially lively on my Facebook page.  Several historians criticized my post. Others defended the idea of the "nation" as a scholarly category that remains worthy of exploration.   Some offered very thoughtful critiques of Wood's work, especially Radicalism.

I  re-read Wood's essay the other day.  I still found some of it troublesome.  In my original post I suggested that Wood has failed to understand that historical work on race, class, and gender should be an essential part of any national narrative.  But I continue to think that very few practitioners of social and cultural American history seem to be making any effort to construct national narratives or even write in a way to convince the general public that this approach to doing history is largely correct.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  I am thinking here of Alan Taylor's American Colonies. It is not really a "national narrative," but it is certainly an attempt to explain the multicultural origins of the United States.  I am also thinking about the recent attempt by the College Board to bring some more diversity to the AP US History exam.

I still believe that if academic historians don't like Wood's founding-father driven national narratives, they should step up to the plate and start writing their own narratives before moaning and complaining.

As I reread Wood's essay, I also realized why I agree with so much of its general sentiment.  For the last few decades Wood has been crusading against two related practices:  First, the practice of condemning the past because it fails to meet the moral standards of the present.  And second, the practice of using the past to promote political agendas in the present.

I realize that the study of history is politicized.  We cannot escape our present-day convictions when approaching the past.  But a historian should at least try to understand the past on its own terms.  This is what makes our work a discipline.  It takes hard work to lay aside our own agenda in order to understand people or places that are different.  Perhaps this is a naive approach, but it is still the way I approach my encounters with the past.  I learned this from reading Gordon Wood.

Though Wood often overstates his case and makes unnecessary swipes at younger historians, in the end he is correct.  I am not willing to go as far as Wood in saying that all practitioners of race, class, and gender history are guilty of superimposing their own values on the past.  In fact, a lot of the social history I have read conforms to the standards that Wood is setting out for us.  But if overt politicization of the past is happening, then it fails to respect what Wood calls the "pastness of the past" and may be a form of historical malpractice.

I also agree with Wood's belief that historians must avoid using the past to promote political agendas in the present.  I have learned this lesson first-hand as I engage the entire Christian America crowd. Folks like David Barton and others cherry-pick from the past to argue that we are a Christian nation. Their politically-charged views of the past influence lawmakers and have a profound influence on public policy.  Similarly, those on the Left, such as the late Howard Zinn, do/did the same thing.

Most of the critics of Wood are offended by his remarks about social and cultural history.  They should be.  But let's not miss his larger point about respecting the "pastness" of the past.

Addendum:  Again, some good discussion happening at my Facebook page.