In this context I was fascinated by discussions about the profession of history between the late Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder in Thinking the Twentieth Century. I consider Judt one of the few historians I've ever read whose work significantly re-ordered my thinking. (My discussion of his monumental Postwar is here.)
Judt is dismissive of most members of his own scholarly discipline. I imagine his colleagues found him a difficult guy to appreciate, but for this reader, it not hard to sympathize with his strictures.
That is, he thinks most of his colleagues are in thrall to various identity concerns or to an intellectual framework that has outlived whatever usefulness it once had. And so their efforts neglect what he considers the fundamental object of history: "to understand the past."
Furthermore, though students may be exposed to "history" in high schools and colleges, what they are too often getting fails to meet their need to integrate an orderly sense of where we come from with their perceptions of where we are. Contemporary history teachers have too often prioritized equipping students to look for what historical accounts neglect or how they implicitly argue with each other rather than getting down to the prosaic but necessary business of passing on largely agreed accounts of what happened. This has been profoundly destructive of the capacity of young people so educated to engage with the questions that rend their current societies.
Snyder, also a distinguished historian, amplifies Judt's critique. If history is as malleable a commodity as much current teaching asserts, students become unable to judge what is is real and what matters.
Both Judt and Snyder adhere to a standard for judging whether something is "good history" that must be infuriating to their detractors; as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart memorably declared about pornography, they claim to "know it when [they] see it." Says Judt:
I loved this stout declaration; it is exactly how I judge the many works I read, though I certainly can't claim these two gentlemen's erudition. I have some academic historical training and am widely read, but ultimately, I judge written history in this partially subjective manner. Simply put, I judge most of the books I read and write about within three categories:
- Niche amplifications of the past: these explore small areas of past experience that need to be noted if our picture of the past is to be rounded. They create the raw materials of historical synthesis. History would be limited indeed without them, but they are not necessarily deep, or well written, or even much integrated with contemporary history. Lots of dissertations fall in this category. This book about free African communities in Canada before the U.S. Civil War is good example of this sort of history. I'd be poorer for not having read it, but it is not good history
- Tendentious histories: These are written, ultimately, to use aspects of the past to make commentary on the present. An example of one whose author might endorse that description is this story of Social Security. Some are very good history, despite (or perhaps because) of their usefulness. I'd put The Fiery Trial in that category.