Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tonsor #11 -- Battles Royal

Harry Rosenberg (1923-2010)
What is grad school about? I am asked that question by students. They think that because they love to watch the History Channel, graduate study in history will be an extension of their personality. They should think again.

Take the professional class that grad students at Michigan enroll in to begin their career as historians. Our first meeting in History 616 was a historiographic set piece. Taught by two internationally renowned professors, Elizabeth Eisenstein[1] and Raymond Grew,[2] it was unlike anything to which I'd been exposed as an undergraduate. At Colorado State University, I had read the classics of historiography with a wonderfully engaging medievalist, Harry Rosenberg.[3] Under his direction our class studied Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Plutarch, St. Augustine of Hippo, Bede, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Tuchman -- not one of whom was a professional historian.

So naturally I wondered whether Eisenstein and Grew's class would continue in that vein. It would not: The difference between undergraduate study at CSU and graduate study at U of M was the difference between the Boy Scouts and the Marines (and I mean no disrespect to CSU). At Michigan, any amateur or populist or sentimental attachment to history was to be burned away like dross from diamonds. Was that a good thing? Was there not something valuable in the dross -- those popular biographies that make the best-sellers lists; those rollicking narratives produced by passionate non-specialists for the informed lay public?

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)
Indeed, what if some of the best sellers were the diamonds? And some of the monographs were the dross?

I fell in love with history as an undergraduate by traveling, taking classes with dedicated professors, and reading non-academic writers -- H. G. Wells, Will Durant, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Robert Caro, Richard Norton Smith. I also enjoyed the first-rate documentaries I had seen by Jacob Bronowski, Kenneth Clark and, later, Ken Burns. But I quickly learned during these first weeks in Ann Arbor that the "amateurs" were verboten -- never to be referenced in an academic setting. To drop a name like Tuchman was not just bad form; it was lethal to professional advancement.

For that reason I identified a tension in myself early in Eisenstein and Grew's class. My heart was pulled by the amateur's love of a story well told; my head by the specialist's obligation to produce monographs that addressed a recognized historiographic problem. As time went on, that tension would stretch me painfully. Like any untreated pain, it threatened to grow until I sought a remedy.

In that first class, Eisenstein and Grew took turns outlining modern methods by which to study European history. They discussed eight major approaches and a number of minor schools that had arisen in the last two centuries. I had no idea there could be so many. Was the study of history really that complicated?

Elizabeth Eisenstein (1923-2016)
It was. The goal was to begin the process of professionalizing us. It was not just to make graduate students realize that history is written from a viewpoint; it was obvious that there was no such thing as perfectly objective history. Nor was it just to show that viewpoints change; change over time was equally obvious. The goal was to get us to see how each historiographic approach constituted a paradigm.[4] These paradigms were like warring religious sects. Each had its authorities. Each developed an agenda for research. Each defined the problems worth investigating. Each had its journals, jargon, and methods. Each had its biases and limitations. Each had its methodological gatekeepers who would fight to the professional death on behalf of the paradigm's defense. And each was responding to larger developments (e.g., the Marxian approach to the Industrial Revolution, and social history to the rise of democratic mass culture).

At the beginning of their professional training, graduate students were introduced to these various approaches to historical study so that they could recognize the battle lines the methodological gatekeepers had drawn. It was all inside baseball to the professionals, but I'll admit that it was fascinating for a journeyman like myself.

For example U.S. history, which was the bread and butter of our profession, grew out of nationalism -- one of the most powerful ideologies of the modern age. Some historians have argued that the -ism was sown during the Reformation; that it sprouted after the Westphalian settlement established the modern nation-state as the unit of international relations; and that the American and French revolutions saw its first flowering. In concert with these developments, the national history paradigm constructed a unified narrative to give a people a common heritage and destiny; also, in an age of immigration, to unify a country's different ethnic groups around a single narrative. This paradigm has dominated for two centuries. It was the approach that my grandparents' generation learned, that my parents' generation learned, and that my generation learned in school. Indeed, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, national history was important in the North's efforts to dominate the South's telling of history. To preserve the modern American nation-state, there could be no resurrection of the Lost Cause. As a Texan living in the North, I found this insight illuminating.

One of the most interesting topics that Eisenstein and Grew raised was that the two troubled instigators of the Second World War, Germany and Italy, were the last great European powers to achieve national integration. To what extent was there a causal connection, they asked.

The really important thing I learned early in History 616 would never be on a test. If the Socratic aim of education is to "know thyself," then I learned there was a persistent something in me that would resist professionalization. It hit me as I listened to Eisenstein talk about biographies. The writing of biography/hagiography was a dominant historical paradigm from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. As background to the biographical paradigm, Eisenstein fleshed out some of the social history. She explained that what we now regard as a college education was available to only one or two percent of the population. In Europe the privileged young men of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie had two options to pursue higher learning. They could either attend a university associated with a Christian sect (in which case historical study would have been colored by Augustinian or Thomistic theology mixed with Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy) or they could learn from private tutors who introduced them to the international "republic of letters" (which consisted mostly of Greco-Roman authors in the original languages). Biography and hagiography, it was believed, were essential to training in aristocratic leadership. The tales of Great Men provided models and antimodels of oratory, statecraft, war-making, aristocratic leadership, and civil service. I listened to all this and thought, yes, this paradigm was an inspired use of history -- it made eminent good sense. Nonetheless, it was frowned upon in the historical profession because of its "methodological individualism": it studied only one human unit at a time.
Raymond Grew (1930- )

I will never forget the high-hat way Grew weighed in at the end of Eisenstein's summary, in case there was any temptation among us to sell out and -- Lord forbid -- write a popular biography: "Biographies may provide interesting reads on the beach and in suburban book clubs, but ask yourself if methodological individualism[5] really advances our understanding of any current historiographic problems." I liked Ray Grew, but you could almost hear him sniff at the words "suburban book clubs."

Sitting in class that first day, I wondered if professional historians criticized President John F. Kennedy for using a best-seller to avoid Armageddon. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, JFK asked his advisors to read Barbara Tuchman's riveting account of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August, in hopes of finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict.[6] 

History 616 felt worlds away from Tonsor's History 416. Certainly it was paradigms away from Döllinger, Acton, Burckhardt, and the other historians Tonsor loved to teach.[7] At the time I wondered if Eisenstein and Grew would regard Tonsor's favorite historians as antiquarians, and their books as historiographic curios. I would later learn that they did not.[8]

The battles royal in the history profession were interesting to discover -- certainly they mapped out an intellectual history that was important to know. Soon enough, though, I would feel additional battles royal brewing inside me.
  • The first was between my mind and heart: Would historical professionalization come at the expense of historical delight? I did not want to focus on theories at the expense of texts, or on methods at the expense of meaning. I'd heard of devout Christians going off to graduate school to study theology -- only to lose their faith in God. I did not welcome a similar fate. 
  • The second was between my pursuit of intellectual history (passé) and the new cultural history (trendy): Would my research in the history of ideas seem dated before I even got to "Go" on the board game of professional advancement? Unsympathetic peer reviews of my articles could sink my work at the start. 
  • The third was how I would respond to the growing awareness that my graduate advisor was isolated in the Michigan history department and an outlier in the broader profession.[9] There were red flags. They included Tonsor's friendship with Henry Regnery (the controversial conservative publisher); his relationship with Revilo Oliver, (his step-father-in-law who was a founder of the John Birch Society); his calling himself a Nixon Republican and serving the administration (loathed among the academic elite)[10]; and his seemingly anti-Semitic speech (at the Philadelphia Society in 1986). Any combination of these factors might be used to try and diminish Tonsor. Any one of them could also be used against me through guilt by association. I am a loyal person -- I was loyal to Stephen Tonsor -- but to what extent would my loyalty hurt my professional advancement?[11]
*     *     *

The next time I sought Tonsor out during office hours, I was on a mission. The air felt cooler, and autumn was making its lackadaisical way to Ann Arbor. The trees were still late-summer green but the sky was so blue it almost hurt to look at. I found my professor hunkered down in Haven Hall. He was wearing a tweed coat and a rather old-fashioned tie.

After inviting me to sit down, I asked him what he thought of the new paradigms I would be studying -- deconstruction, the new cultural history, identity studies, and all the rest. How did his notion of intellectual history fit in?

"I've suffered through many a talk by deconstructionists, Mr. Whitney, and the shallow tam-tam of their analysis leaves me underwhelmed.[12] As for their writing, well, only people with that much education could write so badly.

"Most of what passes for intellectual history these days is not especially helpful to my work. It does not help me chase down my quarry but is a diversion. I simply do not share the same concerns."

My mind flashed back to what Tonsor told me in an earlier conversation. His aim as an intellectual historian was to understand modernity; his goal as a cultural critic was to confront modernity.

Tonsor squinted at one of his shelves as if to look for a book. "Within the last year I read an article by John G. A. Pocock in which he threw up his hands when asked to define 'intellectual history.' He made the observation that it was Germans who had developed theories of history in the nineteenth century. Then the inevitable French came along in the twentieth century and set out to destroy what the Germans had created. There's nationalism for you! Now, what did French philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault turn around and do -- but perpetuate theories of history!"[13]

He chortled at the irony, and I along with him. It was good for me to see how Tonsor held himself aloof from intellectual fads that did not speak to the work he was trying to do. He was secure and did not need to impress others. Perhaps it was the stubborn German in him, but he knew what he was about and was not going to bend either to peer pressure or to intellectual fashion. Tenure gave him that protective "bubble." I appreciated having him as a role model.

As he grew more excited he breathed in little puffs and waved at the door: "Up and down this hall sit historians in judgment of 'high' intellectual history. It is considered elitist because it tells us nothing of the dramas of the valet and scullery maid. Now, there is nothing wrong with exploring the struggles of Everyman. There is nothing wrong with investigating the quotidian concerns of the middling sort. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with trying to understand why a culture's leading thinkers believe the way they do. We intellectual historians explore a different kind of drama -- the drama of debates won or lost, of books that moved a nation, of ideas that changed the world. We shine a light on the drama of wonder unquenched, of questions unanswered, of desires unrequited, of quests uncompleted. We study the symbols and myths men use to order experience, to convey meaning, to connect with others. Virtually every modern generation has had its battle of the books, and it mattered who won the battle. All a way of saying, Mr. Whitney, that intellectual history is central to the human drama."

Mission accomplished. Tonsor's words -- his character as a scholar -- was the fillip my sagging spirit needed.

*     *     *

Later that day, riding the bus back to my apartment on North Campus, I recalled what Tonsor had recently said to me about Washington, DC, the Imperial City where scholars/historians went to die. A related but altogether heretical question crossed my mind: What if the postmodern university was where historians go to die? Could Barbara Tuchman even be hired by a top-tier history department? Or were the great storytellers scattered about in the little denominational colleges, out in the provinces where they were little noticed? More heretical still: Perhaps it was the journalists who were writing the best history these days.

Looking back on the 1980s, I marvel at the irony of it all -- marvel at the fads and how each Next Big Thing was breathlessly embraced in trend-setting history departments. When I entered Michigan, intellectual history was passé. It struggled for respect. Tonsor struggled for respect. I struggled for respect. The situation has changed dramatically. Today, every Next Big Thing from the eighties is passé, every one of them.[14] And Michigan now prides itself on being one of the bellwether programs in the world to study -- intellectual history.[15]

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same.


[1] For The New York Times obituary of Eisenstein, which surveys her significance as a historian, see URL http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/books/elizabeth-eisenstein-historian-of-movable-type-dies-at-92.html?_r=0, accessed September 23, 2016.
[2] For the University of Michigan commendation of Grew, see URL http://um2017.org/faculty-history/faculty/raymond-grew/memoir, accessed September 23, 2016.
[3] See URL https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2011/in-memoriam-harry-rosenberg, accessed September 25, 2016.
[4]The concept of the paradigm, developed by Thomas Kuhn in his groundbreaking 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was one of the most important concepts that intellectual historians taught in the 1980s. It remains a key concept in the humanities. For the continuing applicability of the term, as well as for current insights and updated literature of the various historiographic schools, I am indebted to Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014). She is a big name in historical studies now, and she was a big name in historical studies then.
[5] The term "methodological individualism" is freighted with history and embroiled in dispute. For the meaning of the method in the work of Weber, Hayek, and especially Karl Popper, see URL https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/methodological-individualism/.
[6] It turns out that Tuchman's ideas about the start of the war were not entirely accurate. See URL https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/10/20/cuban-missile-crisis-did-mistake-save-world/hYf8nEauKjnul3fmFCg3PM/story.html, accessed October 12, 2016.
[7] For the official description of Tonsor's History of History I (History 587), see URL http://www.lsa.umich.edu/saa/publications/courseguide/fall/archive/Fall87.cg/390.html, accessed September 23, 2016.
[8] In fact, I would soon discover in office hours conversation that Grew deeply appreciated Lord Acton's critique of nationalism and cited that appreciation in his article, "The Case for Comparing Histories," American Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 4 (October 1980), p. 763.
[9] In a review of Gregory L. Schneider's collection of Tonsor's essays, historian John Lukacs wrote: "In the academic circles of professional historians Tonsor is hardly known, perhaps even not at all. This is regrettable, but perhaps right too, because of the nearly inevitable false and corrupting conditions of recognition, publicity, success in the world in which we now live." John Lukacs, "The Art of History," The American Conservative, September 12, 2005; at URL http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-art-of-history/, accessed December 10, 2016.
[10] GW phone interview with Paul Gottfried, December 16, 2016. Gottfried said Tonsor openly referred to himself as a "Nixon Republican" in 1971, when he was being interviewed for a position in the history department at the University of Rochester. Gottfried, who was also being interviewed for the position, said that Tonsor's willingness to reveal his allegiance to Nixon sank his chances of being hired there.
[11] Many years later I conducted two interviews with historians who helped me better understand my early professional concerns about Tonsor. First was my conversation with Dr. David A. Hollinger, one of the leading intellectual historians in the U.S. who is now emeritus at UC-Berkeley. In the 1980s Hollinger was a colleague of Tonsor's on the history faculty in Ann Arbor, and he served on my prelim and dissertation committees. In a conversation in Berkeley, CA, on April 26, 2015, Hollinger told me that Tonsor made little effort to raise the status of intellectual history within the larger profession. "I personally got along well with Steve," observed Hollinger, "but he was off doing his own thing, writing Emersonian essays and pursuing topics none of the rest of us cared about. He should have been teaching at a small denominational college where he would have been more appreciated." Second was my conversation with Dr. Gregory L. Schneider, a professor with the history faculty at Emporia State University. In my interview with Schneider in Emporia, Kansas, on August 3, 2016, I would learn that Tonsor himself suspected that he might be a professional liability to younger scholars. When I asked Schneider how Tonsor responded to his effort to edit a book of Tonsor's essays, Schneider responded that when he first traveled to Ann Arbor in 2004 to meet the Michigan historian, Tonsor was concerned about how the project could hurt Schneider professionally. Said Tonsor, "I don't want you to be sullied because you are writing about me."
[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Foreword," Lectures on the French Revolution, by Lord Acton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2013), ebook loc. 36.
[13] John G. A. Pocock quoted in URL http://www.historytoday.com/stefan-collini/what-intellectual-history, accessed September 25, 2016.
[14] Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era.
[15] See URL http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/jamescook/u-s-cultural-and-intellectual-history-at-the-university-of-michigan/; and https://lsa.umich.edu/history/people/topical-clusters--in-depth/intellectual---cultural-history.html.

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