Clio at Bay

A Historian’s Article of Faith Under Postmodernist Challenge*


In his academic blockbuster, published over a decade ago, Postmodernist historian Keith Jenkins defined history “as a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past, that is produced by a group of like-minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture salaried historians) who go about their work in mutually recognizable ways that are epistemologically, methodologically, ideologically and practically positioned and whose products, once in circulation, are subject to a series of uses and abuses … which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment and which structure and distribute the meanings of histories along a dominant-marginal spectrum” (Jenkins 2003, 31-32). When broken down into parts, this breathlessly long sentence means that history is a product of a bunch of specially trained workers whose epistemological presuppositions, the works of other fellow historians, as well as the imperatives and injunctions of the publishers or other agencies with power to mold the historians’ research, influence their product—history. Therefore, the Positivist confidence in scientific objectivity of history such as the German historian Leopold von Ranke’s (1795-1886) celebrated claim that history is what happened is but an empty boast, because between the past and the historian there remains a great chasm never to be bridged. In short, history is bunk: it’s a construct, nothing more and nothing less. Historians, therefore, have no raison d’être in the academe as specialists; they are story tellers at best and story makers at worst. In fact Jenkins has unabashedly advised us to “wave good-bye to history” (cited in Southgate 2000, 131).

This kind of epistemological assault on history and its practitioner the historian seeks to deliver a veritable coup de grace on the viability and integrity of a discipline assailed long by skeptics who have questioned the usefulness of dabbling in the past ignoring the present and underscored the need to train for a profession in the real world. I think it’s time that those of us - students as well as teachers - who have been learning, teaching and writing history throughout our professional life, take a stock of our odyssey in order to decide whether to eschew our calling or renew our pledge to our craft.


At the outset, let me deal with two standing allegations coming from the so-called pragmatists and realists in and out of the academe - one against history as an academic discipline and the other against history as an intellectual product. With respect to the first allegation, it is often assumed if not asserted outright, that a graduate in history is unfit for the world of work, especially in a technologically advanced society, since he does not obtain the skills for “anything” in business, industry, or the social services. His degree is purely “academic” meaning that it has no other value than being an academic attainment. In short, a history graduate is an amateur in the professional world, an unskilled, though literate, candidate in the labor market. Admittedly, there are many with a degree in history, who enter the hostile job market with an incurable inferiority complex, especially in competition with such “professionals” as engineers, doctors, technocrats, and above all, the presently mushrooming new class of technicians who call themselves “computer programmers.” Quite expectedly, these “pariahs” of the labor market justifiably resent their degree and question their mentors.

It is also lamentable - and this is with reference to the second allegation - that some societies have often exploited their history to legitimize or justify their prejudices and related practices. Cases of Nazi Germany, Northern Ireland, and more recently, some regions of the Middle East, South Asia, and South Eastern Europe are but a few of the most glaring instances in this regard. Regrettably such a state of affairs does suggest that in spite of historians’ protestations for objectivity and for their goal to present the past as it happened, history invites Postmodern accusation that it is a function and product of power rather than truth.


In investigating the causes of history’s predicament, I question the activities and attitudes of history teachers, in other words, academic historians like ourselves, who are licensed to stamp individuals as fruitfully educated. My question is: Are historians doing their job effectively? My realization, alas, is, no, historians have defaulted, their best intentions and efforts notwithstanding. Globally speaking, in the so-called elite universities some historians behave, like Luther’s God, as Deus absconditus—God who is hiding somewhere. Many of them are either locked up in the ivory tower of research, busy turning out scholarly monographs and papers, to be read and rewarded only by their fellow historians; or they are busy politicking and lobbying for a variety of reasons; or, worst of all, they are too busy and too exasperated to give attention to “mediocrities.”

However, in spite of their best efforts, curricular constraints, often coupled with logistical and personnel problems due to inadequate funding and increasing teaching loads, academic historians in many universities do not get to share their professional experiences satisfactorily with their students. Nor are they always able to pursue their own scholarship on a regular basis. Also the phenomenon of grade inflation for the sake of student retention and recruitment, practiced informally by some academic departments, either under political pressures and presumably with the imprimatur of the administrative managers of the universities, the so-called “bean counters”—as indeed has been the embarrassing situation in some universities all over the world, including the United States of America (Arenson 2004; Moore: Online)—has transformed the university classrooms into a veritable haven of a motley crowd of learners—a handful of curious intellectuals together with a large number of “credit gatherers” eager to get a degree, get out of college, and get employed wherever possible.


If history as academic discipline is in such a quandary, as scholarly product it is also vulnerable to multiple pitfalls. Toward the end of the nineteenth century history as a discipline evoked powerful contempt of the philosopher and linguist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who had dismissed history as a form of knowledge because, as he maintained, no objectively verifiable accounts could exist independently of the situatedness of the historian (see Nietzsche 1994). Later, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908) questioned the alleged intrinsic superiority of Western scientific rationality over mythical forms of thinking (see Lévy-Strauss 1986). The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) held that language shapes images of reality but does not refer to it (see Saussure 1959). Works of these men served as intellectual reserves for later French scholars such as Michel Foucault (1926-84), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Gilles Deleuze (1925-95), and Ronald Barthes (1915-80), the Belgian scholar Paul de Man (1919-83), and the American intellectual historian Hayden White (1928-)—all reputed to be Postmodernist pioneers of the late twentieth century who debunked the notion of “objective” history (see Foucault 1981; Derrida 1976; Derrida 1981; Derrida 1984; Barthes 1997; de Man 1983; White 1987).

A most influential critique of history is that there is an inevitable disjunction between historical (actual) past and the historicized (described) past and that the terms such as “fact”, “truth”, or “objectivity” are inherently relative and fluid so much so that it is utterly impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. The Postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) asserted that we are so influenced by different forms of media that the real has been lost forever. Ours is a culture of “hyperreality,” the real and the imagined have been confused, Baudrillard alleges. The sign, the most important part of human language, has conflated the real (symbolizing the signifier) and the illusion (symbolizing the signified). Thus the sign is not an index of the underlying reality, but merely of other signs—a representation of a representation, or what Baudrillard calls a “simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1988, 166-84).

Theories of Postmodernism have joined with theories of postcolonialism, and more recently, with the politics of multiculturalism. This “grand alliance” has mounted a heavy assault on history as a metanarrative such as Western Civilization, the Enlightenment, The Age of Reason, or the Age of Progress. Consequently, the hitherto successful and meaningful foundational courses in Western Civilization emphasizing readings of the “great books,” have been debunked as instruments of power play rather than an intellectual explanatory enterprise.

More important, Postmodernists challenge historical inquiry based on the notion of epistemology (theory of knowledge) that is totalizing and universal and obtainable through rational method. Postmodernists also challenge the notion of ontology, that is, a mode of being in the world, on which historical discipline is predicated. They despise holistic concepts or universal and totalizing discourses and advocate fragmentation, atomization, and indeterminacy. This ontological and epistemological skepticism threatens to denature history teaching and writing and create a new absolute of intellectual nihilism. Consequently, human beings are no longer regarded as homo sapiens, because sapientia is non-existent in the Postmodern decentered Donnesque [John Donne 1571-1631] universe, where “‘tis all in pieces, all coherence gone” (Donne 1951, line 213). According to the Postmodernist pundits, human society recognizes only politics and power and has little capacity for epistemological certainty. History is nothing more or less than a text—“a series of constructed texts commenting on constructed texts commenting on constructed texts, in a seemingly endless circle of constructed meanings which cannot be directly assessed against all unmediated ‘real’ past” (Fulbrook 2002, 19). This is the Postmodernist mantra and its high priests are, inter alii, Jacques Derrida, Franklin Ankersmit, and Hayden White.


Quite naturally, scholars in such a beleaguered discipline are ill-prepared to offer a defensible rationale for teaching history incorporating the educational goals of a fast-changing and increasingly globalized society except repeating such platitudes as history helps young people to become better citizens or it teaches them to understand people. Even established historians are conscious of the weakness of history, its lack of a well-defined purpose. The late Sir Geoffrey Elton (1921-94) feared that it might be reduced to the status of “intellectual gymnastics,” even though it ought properly to be considered “the only truly empirical discipline” (Elton 1977, 210). As another concerned scholar has it, the historian is “the villain for things not done, or done poorly” (Lord 1972, 417). And as Elton boldly announced, such villains are “ensconced in colleges of education, school, and even in the universities” (Elton 1977, 197).

It is often believed that making history relevant is the first step toward developing a rationale. Relevance, however, does not necessarily mean studying only modern history. History is about the whole life of man in past society. In fact the knowledge that there had been strange things in the past as real as the present experiences and that there had been and are human societies and cultures other than our own is itself a step toward maturing intellectually, which is the goal of all education. A distinguished historian has stated rightly: “Our lives are governed by what happened in the past, our decisions by what we believe to have happened. Without any knowledge of history man and society would run adrift, rudderless craft on the uncharted sea of time” (Marwick 1971, 240). Yet, at the same time, we ought to note that “the old past is dying,…and so it should. Indeed the historian should speed it on its way, for it was compounded of bigotry, of national vanity, of class domination ….” As Professor Plumb has it, “may history … help to sustain man’s confidence in his destiny and create for us a new past as true, as exact, as we can make it that will help us achieve our destiny, not as Americans or Russians, Chinese or Britons, black or white, rich or poor, but as [human beings]” (Plumb 1978, 145).

Michael Howard has warned, “it is not enough to awaken an interest in the past….It is not enough to provide for [history students] scholarly exercises in the handling of evidence on which they can sharpen their wits. We have to teach them how to step outside their own cultural skins and enter into the minds of others” (Howard 1981, 19). In a Hindu myth, an ascetic tells a hunter how he entered the head and thus the consciousness of a dreamer who is a householder. The sage, inside the dreamer, dreams of the same things about which the dreamer was dreaming and becomes a householder like the dreamer. The hunter in this myth is the person who cannot get inside other people’s heads and so is fated to be born over and over again to experience different lives. But the sage, who can get inside other people’s consciousness, mentally experiences countless lives without having to be reborn (O’Flaherty 1988, 7-21) It seems to me that the hunter represents those who practice multiculturalism for the sake of PC, and the sage, like a historian, is aware of his own history and culture as well as those of other peoples through mentation, that is, reading and research. In other words, the historian acquires a capacity for compassion (“feeling with”), or better still, einfühlung or “empathy” (literally “in-feeling,” that is, “feeling into”) (see Lipps 1913).


Admittedly, almost any discipline at the college level is expected to impart some general skills that history also teaches. As Norman Hampson has it, “the habit of sustained intellectual effort, the ability to acquire, check, organize and assess information to distinguish between the proven and the merely plausible, the essential and the peripheral, and to express a rational argument in clear and agreeable prose—these and many similar abilities can be acquired or improved by the pursuit of almost any academic discipline” (Hampson)

It must also be understood that lessons in history do not automatically or universally confer nobility or immunity from all human follies and frailties. Nothing could be learnt from an arrogant or complacent historian who claims to hold all the keys to human problems. “Historians can be stupid, ignorant and fanatical,” Hampson reminds us, “and their students may be no better” (Hampson 1986, 16d). Ideologically or politically motivated historians might provide a quick or quack cure for a nation’s malaise by providing its fantasized and fanciful past history. Hence one needs to be able to distinguish between a conscientious historian responsive to contrary opinions and critiques and a populist peddler of ethnocultural chauvinism.


What could be done to strengthen history as a subject of academic practice? First let us ask an old, hackneyed question: What is history? Few high school or university graduates can give a meaningful answer to this question. If they could, they might repeat the now discredited Positivist definition that history is what happened or they could argue equally convincingly that history is what historians write. We ought to recognize that the facts of history are in fact answers to questions posed by historians. History is never mere congeries of facts consisting of one damn thing after another. What is important in the discipline of history is the historical process: the synthetic task of garnering, ordering, and evaluating materials in order to make sense out of the “dead” data of the past. The essential spirit of historical learning, David Thomson informs us, is one of persistent reflection and thoughtful questioning, “[a] determination to reject all that is not supported by reasonable though not conclusive evidence, and by persuasive argument, and by god sense.” In other words, the quintessence of historical training lies in the cultivation of the faculty of “discernment and discrimination” Thomson 1969, 102). Indeed, as the seventeenth-century polymath Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) had made it clear long ago:
History … is the most difficult type of writing [which] … requires a great judgment, a noble, clear and considered style, a good conscience, a perfect probity, many excellent materials and the art of placing them in good order, and above all things the power of resisting the instinct of a religious zeal which prompts one to cry down what he thinks to be false, and to adorn and embellish what he thinks to be true …” (Bayle 1969, 230-31).


History teaches a set of specialized skills such as judicious selection of the right interpretation of events, imagination to learn how to understand people of the past, and ability to see situations in other people’s terms while remaining free to reject their conclusions. Historians are neither prophets nor pedants but people who have acquired some useful perspectives of their own as well as a skepticism about simple answers to complicated questions. An interesting pamphlet of the Historical Association of England explains the educational objectives for the study of history under four headings: (A) attitudes towards the study of history, (B) nature of the discipline of history, (C) the cognitive behaviors, that is, skills and abilities needed for the study of history, and (D) the educational outcomes of the study of history. The authors emphasize such cognitive skills as comprehension, translation, analysis, extrapolation, synthesis, judgment and evaluation, and communicative skills (that is, writing). According to them, the most important educational outcomes of historical training are the acquisition of insight, knowledge of values, and reasoned judgment through constructive skepticism (Gotham & Fines, 4-5).

The task of history teachers is to transmit “historical understanding” which, in addition to the skills mentioned earlier, is “an understanding of the past.” As Professor Howard explains, “to know the way in which our society came to be formed, to have some understanding of the conflicting forces that created it and are still at work within it, is not only an advantage in the conduct and understanding of public affairs: it is indispensable” (Howard 1981, 6). Clearly, the writing of history calls for a disciplined and imaginative mind together with an acute knowledge and understanding of the sources, if one is to produce a meaningful and reliable account of the human past. “Only ignorance makes the writing of history easy,” warns Professor Elton, and observes that only fools rush in history and often the angels tread upon the fools themselves rather than treading on the fools’ paths (Elton 1967, 89).


Are we teaching history as knowledge about the past and of peoples in every school, college, or university? The vast majority of school leavers graduate with the belief that history is nothing more than a record of past events and it is “interesting” to some and boring to most as a mass of dates, data, and names, to be crammed before tests and forgotten blissfully thereafter. This is of course a generalization that must discount exceptions, but it is not entirely baseless. The cause of this malaise is the unfortunate fact that classrooms of most schools and colleges are filled more with history teachers than with active historians. We do not have sufficient number of high school or junior college teachers of history always performing the dual role of a tester of historical evidence and a teacher of history. Between the two there is a world of difference. It is only when the teacher is trained as a practicing historian and experienced as a productive scholar, that his students can grasp the process of history as inquiry, as dialog or duel between historians and the evidence, as well as a craft, which involves challenging the evidence, formulating hypotheses, testing conclusion, shaping interpretations, and writing them down, thus developing a discourse. Let me emphasize that a historian, that is, an active researcher having the ability to teach, becomes a better teacher by successfully conveying history with a sense of purpose, inspiration, and example. On the other hand, the teacher who has ceased to be a researcher and writer of history is bound to degenerate into a barren instructor. Hence we ought to have a historian who teaches and a teacher who is a historian.


In the final analysis, let me say even at the risk of repeating myself, that a faithful and fruitful exposure to history under the guidance of a competent and conscientious historian will enable students to master multiple skills. For instance, they will be able to study the pattern of social development which history unfolds and thus equip themselves with the tools for organizing their societal life. Secondly, historical studies will actively shape their political, social, and ideological consciousness. Most important, by studying history, they will acquire the skill to perceive the human condition in a meaningful way. Business and government of all kinds require, in addition to specialized or technical skill, a general capacity to deal with complex human situations, to solve problems, to isolate relevant facts and study their significance and interconnections, to balance many incongruous factors--financial, legal, technological, psychological, or political--against each other, and make reasonable deductions from them. Long ago, the celebrated statesman and intellectual of the late Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), had said: historia magistra vitae—history is the teacher of life (Cicero Online). I see no reason to question this ancient Roman wisdom.


I would like to underscore a couple of points in conclusion. I am not naively pleading for history because of some putative “immanent” superiority it commands over other disciplines. Nor do I find it an absolutely hopeless enterprise as did the noted Harvard historian, David Donald, in 1977, after having taught and practiced his craft for over three decades (Donald 1977, 3-4). What I have done, on the other hand, is question myself and my colleagues all over the world as to the effectiveness of our calling and remind us of our dual responsibility to preach and practice our craft precisely because it has so much to offer. As for myself I only need to add, following a historian far greater than myself, that I am “profoundly grateful that I am paid for doing what is, after all, one of the noblest, most permanent and fascinating activities of man” (Perkin 1970, 13).

In my estimation, the most important gift of history’s Muse, Clio, to her devotees is an insight and a farsight, enabling them to learn “the best that has been thought and said” in Western as well as non-Western cultures and “then arrive,” as a writer has suggested, “at a sensible basis for the norms according to which we would like to live our lives and shape” our multicultural society (D’Souza 1991, 31). We must at all times bear in mind that “as an idea universality cannot be given up, because particular rights [or truths] exist only to the extent that universal rights [or truths] exist” (Ahmad 1997, 57). Hence we must not debunk metanarratives, Western or non-Western, in deference to some Postmodern platitudes.

It is also imperative to bear in mind that history cannot be value-free entirely. Beverley Southgate has argued that “the need for an imposed moral structure derives from the very nature of historians’ work, for that work is essentially to do with people: it is about people, and it is done by people.” Thus, “to make some narrative sense … they will have to … adopt some moral position.” Admittedly, history is what gets written but that does not mean, as Postmodernists point out, that history is a mere construct. What needs to be noted, however, is the fact that “history is not only made, but also researched and written, by people” (Southgate 2000, 137-38. What historians need, then, is faith in their enterprise and realization that far from threatening history with extinction Postmodernist skepticism has in fact challenged historians to taking their métier more earnestly and enthusiastically than ever before. Their craft must above all be pursued with a dialectical combination of floodlight and spotlight consciousness—an awareness of the universal as well as the particular. In Hindu metaphysical terms, this double awareness is called duradristi, that is, “farsight.” An ancient Sanskrit text advises: dirghyam pashyat, ma kshudram. Translated into simple English, this Sanskrit aphorism means: “Be farsighted, not shortsighted.”

* Published in The Quarterly Review of Historical Studies, vol. 50, nos. 1 & 2 (April 2010-September 2010). An earlier version of this paper formed my keynote address at Honors at Twenty celebration of the Honors Program, Western Oregon University (October 30, 2004). The author is grateful to President Philip Conn and Professor Robert Turner, Director of Honors Program, for their generosity and encouragement.


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More by :  Dr. Narasingha Sil

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