From the President's column in the September 1999 Perspectives

History Lessons

Robert Darnton, September 1999

Now that the summer has ended, it may be well to recollect that when it began we were at war. As wars go, the conflict in Kosovo does not qualify as a major conflagration, but it raises questions. Wars always do—not just of generals but also of historians: Was the bloodshed necessary? Could it have been foreseen? Did the breakdown of diplomacy result from any failure to consult the lessons of the past?

I have no answer to those questions; and I would not want to approach any historical question in the way that the department chairman in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim answers his telephone: "History speaking." But we professionals owe some explanations to the general citizenry. What does history have to teach us, anyway?

My immediate reply—that the question belongs to the infernal French category of questions mal posées, or questions badly put—may sound like a dodge. History doesn't teach lessons; historians do. In trying to make sense of the past, they disagree; so history is an unending argument about the nature of the past, a series of competing interpretations. Far from having any bottom line, it is bottomless.

My second response may also seem evasive: After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and Social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws. We no longer search for grand designs and dialectics. Instead, we concentrate on the particular and sometimes even the microscopic (microstoria, as it is known in Italy)—not because we think we can see the universe in a grain of sand but because we have developed an increased sensitivity to the complexities that differentiate one society or one subculture from another. Kosovo is very different from the rest of Yugoslavia, to say nothing of Vietnam.

My third attempt at an answer may be as unsatisfactory as the first two: Historians generally distrust the notion of parallels in the past or refuse to believe in their existence. If the economy, social structure, and culture of Yugoslavia are fundamentally different from those of Vietnam, why should the history of the war in Vietnam provide lessons for an assessment of the war in Yugoslavia? To be sure, we can analyze the changing character of American foreign policy from the 1960s to the 1990s. But that task, worthwhile as it is, must take account of some profound changes in circumstances. If we think of our own history as a continuous flow of time, we should remember a lesson that goes back to Heraclitus: You cannot step into the same river twice.

Twenty years ago, professional historians fell under the spell of the so-called Annales school—a group in Paris who attempted to write "total history" by studying shifts in the structure of society over long periods of time. That Olympian view no longer seems sustainable today—not simply because of the interest in microhistory but also owing to a new appreciation of contingency, unforeseen consequences, improvisation, and negotiation as ingredients in the past. If we have lost faith in our ability to detect the play of structure and conjuncture, what do we have to say to the nonprofessionals who expect us to know what underlies events?

Those three stabs at an answer to the question may look like three misses. Is history somehow "out"—out of touch with the concerns of normal citizens, out of tune with the times, out of sympathy with the problems that confront everyone everywhere, in our own backyards as well as in the Balkans?

If I could take one more swing at the question, I would insist on what history can do. Although it cannot produce guidelines for current policy, it can improve our understanding of the complexities of things. To learn about the differences that oppose Vietnamese to Chinese and Albanians to Serbs is to take a first step toward mastering the knowledge that must be mastered, if a policy has any hope of success. That knowledge has to be historical, because societies do not grow up overnight, and human beings carry the weight of the past with every step that they take in the present. If we can learn anything from the experience of Vietnam, it is that systems analysis—the number crunching associated with the McNamara White House—misrepresents reality, because it fails to allow for the incalculable complexities of change over time. It is inherently inhuman. It produces only body counts.

Can historians offer their fellow citizens anything more than a daunting sense of complexity? I believe so, but the lesson will not take the form of policy recommendations. It has to do with still more daunting notions: the human condition, reality, and truth. Big words, which must be reduced to manageable proportions and expressed in the lower case. Of course, we have no access to unmediated truth, and any effort to make sense of the human condition involves an interpretation of reality. But how can we escape from interpretation? We interpret our way through the world every day, taking things as they come and making sense of them as best we can. If we understood that they come loaded with meaning, meaning shaped by past experience, we could gain perspective on them.

Perspective comes with the time dimension. Most Americans live two-dimensional lives, because they take no interest in history except on those rare occasions when they ask about their roots. To know where we come from is to get a deeper appreciation of the human condition. But few of us can acquire that knowledge in secondary schools, because they have usually replaced history with social studies. And few manage to deepen their perspective in college, because most undergraduates are too concerned about the future to bother about the past. They increasingly neglect history to concentrate on economics, politics, computer science, and other varieties of systems analysis.

Perhaps, too, we professors are at fault. We can be so professional that we fail to meet our students' needs for history lessons. Robert McNamara reportedly regrets that he had not studied the history of Vietnam. What, I wonder, would he choose as his major, if he could turn time back and begin college all over again? 

—Robert Darnton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.