Not everyone who studies “the past” can be called “a historian.” This is one of the major themes of Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past. In chapter thirteen (we are jumping around a bit), “History as Cultural Criticism,” Wood also implies that not all college and university history departments are made up of “historians.”
The chapter is a reprint of Wood’s 2000 New Republic review of John Patrick Diggins’s On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. I have not read Diggins’s book, but Wood describes it as a defense of classical liberalism. Wood actually spends little time in the review talking about Diggins’s interpretation of Lincoln. He is instead fixated on Diggins as a defender of a Lockean liberal tradition of American identity, a tradition made popular in the 1950s by the Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America.
Diggins defends an America defined by a Lockean tradition driven by individualism, private property, and capitalism. On the one hand, he challenges the “republican” synthesis that was so predominant in American scholarship during the 1970s and 1980. On the other hand, he challenges the New Left historians’ commitment to multiculturalism. Gary Nash, Eric Foner, and Sean Wilentz all come under the attack of his pen. So do the 1996 National History Standards.
Wood sees Diggins as one of today’s strongest defenders of this liberal consensus. He defends patriotism and a single national identity rooted in these Lockean values. As Diggins writes (and Wood quotes): “In certain parts of the contemporary academic world, to oppose multiculturalism in support of national unity is tantamount to advocating oppression and domination.”
Wood is very hard on Diggins’s approach to the American past. “Diggins thinks of himself as an intellectual historian,” Wood writes, “but in fact he is not a historian at all.” (It is not surprising that Diggins was angered by the review!). He is part of a school of so-called historians (which include Hartz and the late Christopher Lasch) who are more “public intellectuals” than “historians.”
In my opinion, not everyone who writes about the past is a historian. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists frequently work in the past without really thinking historically. Diggins is one of the many scholars who are deeply involved in the past without being devoted to an accurate reconstruction of it. Instead, Diggins is primarily interested in using history to criticize our present-day culture.
As I read Wood, I am torn. His rather strict view of what constitutes “a historian” has much merit to it. In fact, I think he is probably on the mark. Too many so-called “historians” are more interested in using the past to make their point in the present. Yet, many historians (myself included) got into this discipline because we believe that the past can and does speak to the present. Indeed, as Wood himself writes in the introduction to The Purpose of the Past: “I don’t want to suggest that this historical sense, this concern from the pastness of the past, implies a lack of interest in the future…If one believes in a different past, one has to believe in a different future. Without a belief in the future there will be no concern for the past, indeed, no history at all.”
So what place does cultural criticism play in legitimate historical thinking? When historians stop reconstructing the past and begin using it to try to change the world do they cease becoming historians? Can a history scholar and teacher do both?