Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What is History?

Meaning the academic discipline of it, not the times past.

I remember in college feeling a jolt when I read this introduction, circa 1952, from the mainstream U.S. historian Avery O. Craven:

The historian's job is to find order in a disorderly world. He must seek out the threads, whether they exist or not, which tie events together in a somewhat meaningful way. He must show that there is some sense in what has occurred -- some progress or some decline; some relationship between events which rescues them from mere chaos. In his hands well-arranged causes produce inevitable, and therefore just, results. The human mind requires this for its sanity, and the historian must assume the responsibility and provide the assurance that we live in a rational universe.

It was the frank admission of "whether they exist or not" that brought me up short, as a teen-ager; the clear acceptance here that there is a possibility, even a likelihood, that "chaos" is the real condition of the universe and that we delude ourselves for the sake of sanity.

This seemed more the thought of a '60s science fiction writer, a Michael Moorcock, than a sobersides '50s historian.

This is not simply a suggestion that Whiggish history is wrong. It includes the opposite, the Chomsky/Ward Churchill history that finds corruption in everything.

Journalists are historians of the present tense.