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Uncivil war: current American conservatives and social history.

The political surge of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, dramatically illustrated by the results of the congressional elections of November, 1994, has highlighted the antipathies elements of this group maintain for social history, while amplifying their significance. In this setting, some discussion of the implications for social history and of possible remedies and responses is essential. One might hope, of course, that the current political climate will prove temporary, but there is no assurance of this. The use of social history as a focus for conservative attack is so interesting that it warrants some comment quite apart from the practical issues involved. Fascination aside: on the strong chance that conservatism is here to stay for a while, social history in the United States needs some strategy sessions.

Conservative dislike of social history is of course not new. Gertrude Himmelfarb had provided an initial blast at the genre, first in an Atlantic Monthly article (when this periodical was beginning to establish itself as the Defender of Civilization in matters intellectual), then in a book.(1) The Reagan triumph brought William Bennett as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Bennett quickly made his distaste for social history known. He was quoted as dismissing a project on working-class history on grounds that workers had nothing to contribute to the real record of civilization, citing the importance of further work on Plato as the funding target of choice. For a time, in the 1980s, it was informally recommended that social history, as a specific label, be removed from NEH proposals, even when the actual content might pass muster. Bennett's successor, Lynne Cheney, eased up a bit, and some sociohistorical projects began to creep back into the funded category.(2) Cheney, though now the conservative spokesperson against a variety of evils in professional historical research and teaching, continues to profess some approval of attention to diverse groups, including women, in American history. But even a bit of flexibility did not eliminate the tension between the conservative view of the past and the sociohistorical vision - a tension present also in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, when university funding cuts seriously affected social history, leaving several centers diminished.

The recent resurgence of conservative success in the United States accidentally coincided with a number of occasions for public review of what the history discipline is all about. In the autumn of 1994, after a long and laborious gestation, two sets of History Standards were issued by the National Center for History in the Schools, on United States and world history respectively.(3) Both sets quickly drew conservative ire. Editorialists, Lynne Cheney at their head, excoriated what they termed untraditional views of the American past and the downgrading of Western civilization in the larger historical approach to the rest of the world. Radio talk show hosts, ordinary citizen letter-writers, and finally the U.S. Senate by a 99-1 majority, blasted the Standards.(4) The attack on the proposed Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian, though not directly linked to social history, confirmed the gulf between most professionals and the self-appointed spokespeople for the public at large. In February, 1995, Apple Computer briefly withdrew usage of an American history CD-ROM project spearheaded by a number of eminent social historians, ostensibly because the materials included some comment on the history of homosexuality and abortion but (it was publicly suggested) probably also because of undue attention to workers and immigrants and insufficient bows to the seminal roles of American businessmen and inventors.(5)

The furor was, obviously, extraordinary. It is important to emphasize that more than social history was involved, which means that some conservative historians might approve of certain renderings of social history while participating in the wider fray. Conservative spokespeople (not themselves historians for the most part), disliked world history, even when focused on elites, if it distracted from a primary focus on the greatness of Western values. They disliked analysis that suggested anything but uplifting and rational motives on the part of national leaders - the essence of the Enola Gay controversy. The National Standards that were so roundly attacked did not in fact play up social history, and it is possible that a fuller embrace of social history might have elicited fewer attacks. The Standards directed at United States history carefully included lessons on the political roles of a variety of groups, African Americans at their head, but did not offer a rounded sociohistorical approach in terms of attention to topics outside the standard political arena. Major transitions in women's work, for example, were not highlighted, nor were less group-focused topics like leisure or family structures included. But the idea of painting a diverse canvas, even while retaining a substantially political focus, was anathema enough to the resurgent Right. In the classroom, at least, history should be filled with conventional heroes and their purposeful, successful action; testing their policies by the reactions of leaders in other groups was distracting and demeaning.

Social history was and is, unquestionably, a large part of the perceived problem, which is why its position warrants attention quite apart from any vestigial Standards debate. (The Standards themselves seem dead in the water politically, despite an ongoing rescue operation, though their informal impact may prove considerable.) Editorialists made it clear, for example in the Wall Street Journal, that they recognized contemporary historians' commitment to social history but found it largely irrelevant, if not positively harmful.(6) Lynne Cheney, proposing in congressional testimony attacking the National Endowment that no historical research be funded that did not portray the American past in a favorable light, might well have had the dominant modes of social history in mind; certainly her energetic talk show performances evinced distaste for the histories of oppressed groups that might tarnish the national image. The new history curriculum for schools in Virginia, carefully developed under conservative leadership, provides additional evidence. Emphasizing facts about Greek democracy, the glories of the Renaissance, and American constitutional development and the presidencies, it ignores social history topics and analytical capacities alike.

At least three aspects of social history draw conservative ire, under the general effort to use professional history as one target for suburban anger now that convenient cold war appeals to nationalism have lost their meaning. First, of course, is the undeniable fact that many social historians are politically to the left. Political agendas have motivated or influenced a fair amount of social history, in the United States from the 1960s onward. To be sure, social historians are politically divided, with some attached to a much more definite political agenda than others. Leftist sentiments were not the only inspiration for social history even in the seminal 1960s, and radicals have often vigorously disputed the more politically neutral or bland social science tendencies that also spawned the field. A large number of social historians can make a strong case that their work is not politically inspired, citing the criticisms of American social history practice from the left as supporting evidence.(7) Indeed, with apologies for a personal note, my own work has been most commonly criticized as insufficiently radical, too focused on the modes of accommodation with existing systems - until the current controversies in which conservatives at least have relabeled me. In tending to dismiss social history as politically suspect the conservatives greatly oversimplify. Their jeremiads against "politically correct" history often constitute a clever (distressingly successful) ploy to impute political agendas to scholars when in fact the political tests are being imposed, administered and graded by the conservatives. But the distortions have a partial factual base. Among historians generally, certainly among social historians, there are few Republicans. We may feel that this is confirmation of our good taste, but it also creates real vulnerabilities and, with conservatism at least for the moment in ascendancy, raises some complex issues of self-presentation. Perhaps, like some of the subordinate groups social historians have studied, we must learn to pass in public, while keeping our private souls intact. Or we could, by lot, designate a token force of Republican converts. For the moment, we offend our critics, and the results, in terms of reaching relevant audiences, are not trivial.

Second, social historians (even politically moderate ones) have not usually taken as their principal task the glorification of real or imagined American ideals. We are bent more on studying specific groups or facets of social behavior or larger patterns of social change; a nationalist or Whiggish litmus test is not relevant to most of us. This is where Lynne Cheney's recent ploy has been so interesting and tactically adroit. Many Americans (not necessarily died-in-the-wool conservatives) may assume that history, at least taught history, should have an upbeat message, inspiring confidence in our basic institutions and in prospects for the future. Conservatives, certainly, offer a nice past, full of democracy and business success and opportunity, leading implicitly toward a nicer future. The results of social history do not, of course, invariably emphasize gloom and doom. We often write about the glorious actions of specific groups, or the largely positive context for 19th-century social mobility, or even the strength of certain family structures over time. Some of us may indeed overdo our bubbly enthusiasms for successful adaptations in the past, just as others emphasize deterioration. But even the relative optimists, to my knowledge, are rarely Whiggish, in seeing some underlying tide of progress leading humankind or Americankind ever upward and onward. Social history is a successor to Whiggish views to progress and to nationalist history, and this is one area where we may have outraced the momentum of American middle-class culture. We have in fact largely shot down several sweeping theoretical approaches, like modernization, in part because, even with sophisticated interpretations, they too easily conduced to facile optimism. Maybe this aspect of our message - the complexity, gains-and-losses aspect - is widely unpalatable; it certainly feeds the conservative mill.

Finally, of course, social historians do see large groups of people, including lower-class and racial minority groups, as significant subjects of historical study and as significant actors in the past, causal agents in many fundamental areas of historical change from politics to demography. Regardless of our special topics, which do not always focus on the masses, this inclusiveness forms a card carrying test of social history. Many conservatives don't like this. Their history is shaped by individual figures, to whom benign motives and rational action can be attributed. They are clearly nervous about attention to other actors. Partly this is simple nostalgia: that is, a desire to see the past stay as it was once presented, back in the conservatives' own untroubled schooldays. Partly it reflects a revealing fear that attention to the lower orders must be critical of capitalism and the American elite - which may be so but is not logically necessary. It is fascinating to see key conservative pundits sell the American public on the idea that the history of most people's ancestors might be subversive of national and capitalist ideals - though of course they don't phrase their case this way. Partly, again, conservative preference reflects a desire to use history to inspire - a belief that attending to great people, defined as those who have carved out success in the American past - will infuse our young with proper values. (This again is not necessarily so, in two senses. First, there is no overwhelming 20th-century evidence that conventional American history heroes have much impact on young people's values and behaviors. Second, and more to the point here, social historians can make a pretty good case that their interest in rational, often successful actions by non-elite groups can provide important lessons and inspirations too, sometimes more relevant to the lives of the students being educated.) The conservative American history, then, must be a history dominated by frequent (and largely approving) reference to Washington, Lincoln, Edison, Carnegie. Social historians, who see history operating from a different dynamic and whose expansion of the topics of the past requires some reduction in the space available for white male staples simply on grounds of manageability, cannot meet this criterion.

Thus a battle seems joined. The temptation to dig our sociohistorical heels in is strong. Many of us (despite the real political differences within our ranks) don't like the current conservative agenda even aside from history. We can easily bridle at the distortions by conservatives seeking to broaden their audience and position themselves for advances in a post-Clinton administration. Some spokespeople thus contend, in blatant disregard for accuracy, that historians have become mere ideologues, while suffering from such relativism that they can no longer construct a coherent past. Against these falsehoods - relativism, for example, has not gained much ground in the discipline - counterattack, honed within the comfortable confines of our own colleagues, must be one response. Without exaggerating the political significance of the History Debate, it can be suggested that key conservatives are seeking to bash the arts and humanities, within an American anti-intellectual/nationalist tradition,(8) by attacking practitioners as elitists in order to distract from other measures designed to benefit the rich. Social historians, because of disciplinary commitments to popular history as well as political inclinations, must find this galling.

But the elitist tag reminds us that the conservative stance is challenging as well as infuriating. If we spend too much time demonstrating the unfair politics of the anti-Political Correctness Campaign, we will please ourselves, perhaps serve Truth, but probably lose a larger audience.(9) We are experts, and do not maintain the best of relations with America's current political majority. Defensive counterattack may not be the only sensible response. Some social historians may be tempted toward benign neglect as a second option. No political mood lasts forever. We do not know how much of the public the conservatives represent with their historical Whiggism and great-man preferences. David Thelen contends that most adults, if interested in the subject at all, are really drawn to their own family history, which offers potential links to social history if properly addressed, rather than to the conservative idealization of America's business and political past. The surge in the popularity of historical museums, coinciding with increasingly focused social history presentations in museum work, further confirms the complexity of defining what the public thinks of the discipline. Certainly actual curricular changes in American classrooms thus far reflect the demographic shifts in the student body, with the steady increase in racial and ethnic minorities, far more than any embrace of conservative goals. This does not always produce more social history teaching - parades of African kings legitimately draw many African American students into history without any more sociohistorical content than parades of white Presidents - but it can provide a favorable context. We may decide to pin our educational hopes on this option, bypassing confrontation with the conservatives. Or we may concede the mass educational terrain to nationalism, preserving our research thrust in the towers of learning. After all, we survived the years of Bennett and the first incarnation of Lynne Cheney, and British social historians seem to have survived Thatcherism, with social history still intact and vigorous; doubtless we can do it again.

Our connection with a wider American public does warrant attention, however.(10) The conservative charge against social history has hit home, as anyone recently discussing the issues with a middle-class audience will probably attest. Robert Dole's recent demand that history teaching take as its main goal the proposition that the United States is the greatest country in the world, doubtless has a real audience; Dole certainly expected campaign brownie points. Many Americans, not necessarily doctrinaire conservatives, do have expectations that history will teach great people and great moments. They are nervous about "American" values and about the place of minorities in the national life, concerns which can be translated into suspicions of what social historians try to do. They do not understand why the history of certain social groups or of topics like sexuality warrants attention. I have no sense that this public cannot be addressed and persuaded, but right now their sympathies lie with the conservative editorialists - if only because these have been so vigorous. Social historians have not been successful, a few noteworthy exceptions aside, in contacting an adult reading public in the United States, whose historical interests remain overwhelmingly attached to military history and biography. This is a difficult moment for social historians to consider their public posture, because of the edginess of the national mood, but precisely for this reason we might ponder some imaginative outreach. In the process we need to think about our style of presentation and certainly the justification of our work, while appealing to groups more politically varied than those (captive students aside) we are accustomed to address. The challenge, to focus on what our essential message is and how it relates to other purposes in history, will not be a small one.

In suggesting new kinds of outreach, I do not mean to hold out much hope of persuading the leading conservative spokespeople. We may wish to try to clarify the distinction between social history and any comment on past oppression, regardless of how demonstrated, for in my opinion it is true that standards of evidence in some radical history have slipped while sheer assertions of theoretical constructs - patriarchy is one recurrent example of a good concept being over used - have gained ground.(11) But while I think some clarifications in our own ranks may help maintain good social history, I don't hold great hope that more careful boundary-setting will do much good, where the committed conservatives are involved, in the short run: the other traits of social history, the non-Whiggism and the attribution of causation to ordinary people, will continue to do us in for this camp. Those of us who have tried some debate formats can attest to conservative intransigence and sloganeering. (Defending the significance of the history of birth control in a radio discussion, I was recently attacked for being hostile to white males, homosexual, and simply radical extremist.) We may, quite seriously, want to help each other hone effective debating skills, for the audience is not usually as monomaniacal as the talk show hosts, but there are limits to what we can expect.

On the other hand, not only books but also other media opportunities - the existence of a serious History Channel on cable television, the development of a History Network on the Internet, the proved popularity of social history in museum presentations - offer exciting invitations to craft sociohistorical products appealing and useful to a thus-far unpersuaded audience. There is more than a call to action here; there are means of responding.

Stating the challenge of wider outreach is easy. Meeting it is another matter. Social historians in the United States cannot be accused of neglecting a broader public audience, but their collective attention has been inconsistent at best and their track record spotty. The American public is not accustomed to looking toward social history for much expertise - John Demos has commented on this with regard to family history. And even apart from vociferous conservatism, the current national mood has veered toward hostility to expertise in any event. Thus historians are not routinely viewed as special custodians of the past, any more than doctors need to be systematically consulted on health care issues. Recent discussions in Florida and elsewhere between local history societies, eager for more autonomy and chafing under expert prodding to do more meaningful work, and academic social historians readily tarred with elitism, are revealing of this wider defiance. Many local history magazines have pulled away from scholarly contributions in favor of popularized antiquarianism, and while this approach may still embrace social history, its significance - from the academic perspective - is questionable. With business groups - one thinks of the Disney American history project - also eager to claim a leadership role in presenting history, it is clear that we must be not only tactful but also active and resourceful in taking advantage of new ways to attract a new adult audience.(12)

One approach definitely deserves attention. Without slackening our efforts to address a general public with findings of group history - on the past experience and impact of lower classes, racial and ethnic groupings, and genders - we can also emphasize more strongly the contributions of social history to an understanding of various life experiences. Historians generally, when they seek to draw a wider audience, focus on memorialist efforts, providing narratives of past developments and feeding a need for memory of national, local or race, class or gender experience. Nothing wrong with this, and social historians have ample means of contributing to the genre if and as we find an appropriate voice. But, particularly given the topical outreach of social history in dealing with changes and continuities in the experience of youth, or emotion, or family relationships, or drugtaking, or even gestures and the physical senses, we can also directly discuss how current personal and social phenomena have been shaped by historical precedent and historical cause. We can discuss how dieting is constrained by the nature of eating and slimming over the past century, or how reactions to disease reflect altered modern experiences and expectations, or how contemporary issues in adolecent sexuality emerged through a series of historical changes. My impression is that the potential interest in this approach - of history in service to contemporary human experience - has not been adequately tapped, because both historians and their public expect historical outreach to be otherwise directed. As we think about utilizing new means of contacting a wider audience, we have a host of topical strengths to play up. Public unawareness of the contributions of historical research in these areas testifies to need and opportunity - even people intensely interested in family history are often ignorant of the fact that formal study of family patterns has become a major field of historical scholarship, and they're characteristically delighted to learn of new connections. We have a set of vigorous messages, with diverse political implications or few implications at all, that we have not yet managed to send.

There is a more familiar front to address as well. The current conflict over history thus far has largely bypassed actual classroom needs and experience. Conservative critics may harangue about what moral lessons history teaching should impart, but they have not displayed any particular awareness of what actually works in classrooms. Social historians, for their part, have yet to establish a particularly vigorous record in addressing pedagogical and curricular issues, at least below the college level, though again some important exceptions must be noted. Few social historians have actually spelled out how the field should be taught in relation to other subjects. Some textbook writers have combined social and other materials, but often unsystematically, while much actual social history teaching remains in the special topics category. Hence a vulnerability to accusations of imbalance, which need to be addressed with careful curricular structures in mind.

At the same time, though neglected in the recent fervor, there is reason to believe that social history effectively promotes larger history learning goals, improving student interest in history and helping, because of the cogency of the subject matter, to move students ahead in their acquisition of skills in historical analysis. A recent survey of textbooks argues this point directly, and there is other evidence as well.(13) But pulling this facet of a social history case together requires, again, some reorientation within the field, toward another set of outreach concerns to complement the commitment to innovation in research. It suggests more systematic, and mutual, contact with history teachers than we have thus far developed. It requires more concerted blending with other historical topics, even if a sociohistorical framework advances.

This is an opportune moment for discussion of social history's position in American education and amid the American publics. The irony of attack on precisely the kind of history that deals with broad groupings in the name of a history-using majority requires more than a reassertion of our research achievements. Addressing teaching needs and the historical requirements of a wider public pulls us into partially new territory. While appropriately lamenting the mindlessnes of some current attacks, we can also take the occasion to think about our own delivery.

Department of History Pittsburgh, PA 15213


1. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals (Cambridge, MA, 1987).

2. Lynne Cheney, 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students (Washington, DC, 1989).

3. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards: United States History and National Standards: World History (Los Angeles, CA, 1994).

4. John Leo, "It's the Culture, Stupid," U.S. News and World Report (Nov. 21, 1994): 30; "Red, White and Blue," Newsweek (Nov. 7, 1994): 54; Lynne Cheney, "The End of History," Wall Street Journal, Oct. 20, 1994; Congressional Record: Senate, Jan. 18, 1995, S1025-S1040.

5. Jeffrey Trachtenberg, "U.S. History on a CD-ROM Stirs Up a Storm," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 10, 1995.

6. Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 1995.

7. Tony Judt, "A Clown Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians," History Workshop (1979): 66-94; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, "The Political Crises of Social History: A Marxian Perspective," in Peter N. Stearns, ed., Expanding the Past (New York, 1988), pp. 16-32.

8. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York, 1963).

9. Christopher Newfield and Ronald Strickland, eds., After Political Correctness: The Humanities and Society in the 1990s (Boulder, CO, 1995).

10. On our failure to communicate with a larger audience - "to a public that has long demonstrated an avid interest in history" - and the extent to which we leave the field to scorned popularizers by default while disregarding the kinds of people whose lives as social historians we seek to recapture, see Leon F. Litwack, "Beyond the Boundaries of the Academy," paper presented to the American Council of Learned Societies, New York, April 29, 1995. Litwack argues eloquently for a more accessible and explicable scholarship, in the schools and beyond, without abandoning scholarly standards.

11. I've tried to skate between the political poles of Political Correctness and the even more political Anti-Political Correctness in Steams, Mean/ng Over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993).

12. John Demos, Past Present and Personal (New York, 1986), ch. 8; "Public History and Disney's America," Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter 33 (1995): 1-10; Florida Headquarters debate on H-Net, H-Local, Mar. 8, 1995, ff; for a discouraging comment on public interest in intellectual challenge, Paula Baker, "The Fragmentation of the Profession and the Class Culture," Journal of American History 81 (1994): 114-751; Maris Vinovskis, An "Epidemic" of Adolescent Pregnancy?: Some Historical and Policy Considerations (New York, 1988).

13. James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (New York, 1995); Stearns, Meaning Over Memory.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Social History and the American Political Climate - Problems and Strategies
Author:Stearns, Peter N.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Feb 5, 1996
Previous Article:The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology.
Next Article:The Culture Wars, 1965-1995: a historian's map.

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