From the President

Narrowing Distances: A Proposal for Talking about History

Kenneth Pomeranz, March 2013

Historians share an approach to reading, and to relating bits of information to each other, which distinguishes us from our colleagues in other disciplines. Explaining clearly and convincingly what that is, and why it is a necessary part of a general education, is difficult; but it is also urgent, especially amidst today's pressures to offer cheaper, narrower, and more career-oriented programs that students can complete more quickly. It may help to approach our somewhat elusive shared expertise through another kind that seems easier to communicate: that which we develop in our separate time/place fields.

Our specializations wind up embodied in our publications, and in ourselves: we approach the next document, monograph, or question in our own field with a big head start over our younger selves. But while the fields themselves may have straightforward names—Tokugawa Japan, the Soviet Union—it is less clear to non-historians exactly how we are "experts" in them, aside from our knowledge of specific facts, people, and events. It is harder still to explain how learning one such field might help us approach another; but that is probably what matters most in selling history as a discipline to people who will never deal with a samurai or a commissar.

I have spent years studying late imperial China. But through occasional reading, early education, conversation, museum-going, and reading plaques on buildings, I can probably name more politicians, poets, painters, and merchants from the 19th-century United States than from 19th-century China. And since the 19th-century United States is much more like my world than 19th-century China is, many ideas in its documents—elements of Christianity and republicanism, for instance—are more immediately accessible to me than a complicated high Qing text. Our time/place fields, then, represent a funny kind of specialization, as they may not be the time and place we know best—at least as regards some basic facts and how the century is remembered by my culture. (Even the expert historian of the 19th-century United States will always lack some tacit knowledge about that period that she or he has about our own.)

Yet nobody in the historical professions would suggest that historians of more remote time/place fields switch en masse to something more accessible. One reason we don't abandon entire time/place fields—though we do write off topics which seem too hard to know—is that, in an important sense, we can't. People inevitably locate themselves, at least implicitly, with respect to imagined pasts, and locate one group's past with respect to that of other groups. (It's worth noting here that "distant" hard-to-fathom circumstances are sometimes close enough in time and space that many people think they have easily accessible lessons: contrasts between our world and what we "know" about what separates us from 20th-century totalitarian societies, for instance, often loom large in justifying people's political commitments.) Better, then, to have scholars of many histories, who can rule out at least the worst misunderstandings of how each past world was and was not like ours. But there's a defensiveness in this line of argument that limits its appeal—especially as it conjures up an endless game of whack-a-mole against one historical misconception after another.

We may make our case more compelling by emphasizing that the understanding we can deliver about specific past societies comes bundled together with learning techniques useful for the more general task of narrowing the distance between ourselves and people shaped by different circumstances, whether that distance starts out being large and obvious (as with, say, Gupta India) or subtle enough (as with the 1950s United States) that one might initially overlook it. This may seem simple, even platitudinous, but I think it helps show how we argue for learning history.

For one thing, many of us might lay more stress on our methods, habits of mind, and modes of inquiry, and less on claims that applying them for a semester will yield a confident grasp of how people in society X lived. Without abandoning claims that we can help students meet content standards that embody necessary background knowledge for dealing with contemporary societies—making the strange familiar—we might increase our emphasis on the benefits of making the familiar strange.

This involves emphasizing the ways in which we unsettle what people "know" about both how our we got from past to present—e.g., revealing Rosa Parks was a longtime activist who was at times lukewarm about integration, rather than a tired seamstress simply responding as somebody naturally would in that situation—and about parts of our world that they might at first think are natural, not historical (e.g., certain gender roles or the desirability of certain objects). Thus, we narrow the distance between ourselves and the past from both endpoints, and while we build factual knowledge in the process, this never allows us to say that we understand either past or present more than provisionally.

As an argument for the discipline—equally applicable to the study of more and less "strategic" time/place fields—this does not rely on students expecting to encounter any particular society or problem for which they will need "historical background." (Even in pessimistic moments, I don't worry too much about convincing the student who hopes to do business in Brazil or has a Brazilian fiancée to take some Brazilian history; the challenge is the student with no such plans, and his/her advisor in physics.)

A focus on this process of provisionally narrowing the distance between our own world and the one we're studying, rather than on an end point of eliminating it, may also help highlight how what we do isn't just a general humanistic "critical reading." We approach a text differently from most philosophers or literary critics; we aim at assembling a coherent picture out of many fragments, most of which were not created in order to communicate an argument or worldview.

None of us want to be dilettantes–but self-consciously becoming a near-beginner now and then probably makes us better specialists.

This requires confronting explicitly the need to draw provisional conclusions while recognizing them as provisional, analyzing how the processes by which evidence reached us may have skewed what we see, assessing what constitutes adequate evidence for various qualitative and quantitative judgments, and so on. These are, we might add, very useful skills to develop for dealing effectively with incomplete knowledge of past, present, and future situations.

A personal anecdote may make this more concrete. Last summer I was in South Africa for a conference and short vacation, and was surprised that almost everyone I encountered spoke about apartheid as a system under which "the country suffered," rather than talking about specific groups gaining or losing from it. Some questions I asked myself to try to try make sense of this—Whom was I meeting, hearing, or reading, and whom was I missing? How might their audience affect their comments? What goals might this framing of the past promote? What did I actually know about apartheid?—might have been suggested by various disciplines, or even by common sense. Others—When and where did this discourse come from? Had it been consciously promoted, and how?—could only be answered by studying South African history in particular.

But in between were questions and ideas that came from having seen various historians examine loosely analogous phenomena: the emergence of a depoliticized "heroes in blue and gray" narrative of the U.S. Civil War, the rewriting of Chinese revolutionary history as relations across the Taiwan Strait thawed, any number of works on the cultural politics of shifting international alliances or the construction of uplifting national histories. None of this made me an expert, but it gave me useful footholds on a learning curve: provisional hypotheses that allowed me to start seeking better answers. I would not have had those footholds without exposure to history as a discipline.

More speculatively, emphasizing that we offer techniques for narrowing the distance between our own world and others—rather than the degree of closeness we can reach—also implies something for our own ongoing professional development, as it were, our own general education: namely, the importance of interacting regularly with historians who do very different time/place fields from our own, and renewing periodically the experience of being on a steep learning curve. Many of us get plenty of "continuing education" in our research specialties; we may not get enough in teaching methods, but that's a topic for another time. This, I suspect, is a kind of professional development that helps us get better as both teachers and researchers—and while attending job talks or simply talking to colleagues may do the trick for some lucky people, it wouldn't hurt most of us to seek out this sort of experience more systematically. None of us want to be dilettantes—but self-consciously becoming a near-beginner now and then probably makes us better specialists. It should at least help us see, and explain, the generalizable advantages we have over real beginners.

Kenneth Pomeranz is president of the AHA.