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Historians: Go big or go home!

Two New England professors make waves by calling on colleagues to get more ambitious

Sam Washburn for the Boston Globe/Sam Washburn

Who among us really understands the grand sweep of history—the deep roots of the major problems of our time? If anyone does, you might guess, it would be people aspiring toward jobs as professional historians, who shape their dissertations with one eye on the highly competitive market for tenure-track jobs at colleges and universities.

But to look at recent winners of the field's most coveted honors, the Bancroft Award, you'd see something quite different. The historians who land the prize for their doctoral theses tend to focus on very narrow time periods. Take the titles of some recent Bancroft dissertation prize winners: "Paying the Price of War: United States Soldiers, Veterans, and Health Policy, 1917-1924" (Jessica Adler, 2013); "American Empire, Agrarian Reform and the Problem of Tropical Nature in the Philippines, 1898-1916" (Theresa Marie Ventura, 2009); "A Struggle in the Arena of Ideas: Black Independent Schools and the Quest for Nationhood, 1966-1979" (Russell J. Rickford, 2009). The top prizes are emblematic of a much broader trend in the field of history itself, one that favors archival research within tight boundaries over broadly conceived narratives with big conclusions.


In a recent book, two historians at top New England universities argue that big thinking about history, which was once de rigueur among academic historians, is now sorely lacking in the profession. Throughout "The History Manifesto," a fiery polemic that has attracted attention in both the academic world and the mainstream press, authors Jo Guldi, an assistant professor of history at Brown University, and David Armitage, chair of the history department at Harvard, argue that since the mid-20th century, historians have become too focused on small questions, brief time periods, and deep but narrow archives. In 1900, Guldi and Armitage write, the average history dissertation covered about 75 years; by 1975, the average period covered had contracted to 5 to 50 years.

"What we diagnose in the book is a crisis of short-termism," Guldi said. She and Armitage connect the contraction of dissertations' time spans with a more general tendency among historians to think small—and, in turn, to a broader public shortsightedness, what Guldi called "the narrowing of time scales for decision-making in politics at large." Big problems like climate change and inequality, Guldi and Armitage say, call for big-picture thinking, and historians should be the ones to lead the way.


While "The History Manifesto" has been covered positively in the popular media, some historians have greeted its publication with mixed feelings. Historians turned away from big history for a reason, they note, wary of oversimplified narratives about great men that ignored less powerful actors and the quieter corners of public and private life. So-called microhistory, Nikolas Funke, a fellow at the University of Birmingham in England, wrote over e-mail, "is often the only way to glimpse and examine humanity in history, a necessary reminder that we are not just subjects to economic forces or ideological regimes but that we create and shape historical contexts and developments."

Meanwhile, despite what Guldi and Armitage call a crisis, some longer approaches to history have already started to gain traction again, inside and outside of the academy. Even if narrower dissertations are still successful in winning the field's prizes, Guldi and Armitage acknowledge that since 2000 the average time span dissertations cover has risen again significantly, to just under a century. "Big history," a mix of biology, physics, and human events popularized by historian David Christian, was recently funded as a large-scale curriculum project by Bill Gates. Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," which covers the history of inequality from the 18th century through the present day, sat atop bestseller lists for weeks this year. In subfields like environmental history, scholars have been producing works of wider scope for the past few decades.


Sam Washburn for the Boston Globe

Still, many younger historians, facing a contracting job market and increased pressure to publish, find that the hiring and promotion practices of the profession encourage them to keep it small. For this generation, the question is whether this new manifesto can really help make long time scales and big questions once again viable as starting points for inquiry.

Until the mid-20th century, historians wrote about long chronological periods and made big arguments as a matter of course. Eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon’s celebrated six-volume, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” covered more than 1,500 years. American historian George Bancroft’s “History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent” was 10 volumes in length, published over 40 years (1834-1874), and did not shy away from the big argument: Bancroft was firmly committed to advancing the notion that America represented the pinnacle of human development.

In the 20th century, some historians began to question these popular grand narratives. As early as 1931, English historian Herbert Butterfield criticized the so-called Whig interpretation of history—advanced by historians like his countrymen Thomas Babington Macaulay and G.M. Trevelyan in the previous century—because it led writers to recast events as a relentlessly positive tale of inevitable British progress. Such historians, Butterfield wrote, tended to "praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present." Big narratives were more prone to fall into this trap, since their authors could plausibly ignore developments that didn't fit a given argument.


In recent years this criticism has taken a more political turn. Grand narratives have often been stories about history's victors: the powerful, the strong, the white, and the male. "People in the academy right now came of age in the era of [postcolonial theorist] Edward Said," Guldi told me, "of a rejection of macro-narratives per se." In keeping with Said's work in the 1970s and 1980s, and with the many theorists who have developed these arguments since, contemporary critics argue, as Guldi put it, "against the macrohistorical narratives of science, progress, the white race, Protestantism, that we inherited from the Victorians."

This retreat from macrohistory went hand-in-hand with a turn toward social and cultural history in the 1960s and 1970s. A new breed of microhistories were written to recover the experiences of women, minorities, and the poor. In the best examples, by paying close attention to a small archive—the life of a person; the history of a community during a short period—historians have been able to highlight people whose data doesn't always show up in the conventional historical record.

Against this backdrop, Guldi and Armitage are trying to reclaim big history as a valuable model, pointing to older examples that counter the worst grand-narrative stereotypes. Perhaps the most important touchstone for Guldi and Armitage is the work of midcentury French historian Fernand Braudel, of the Annales School of historical writing, who coined the term longue durée (long term) to describe the school's approach. Braudel argued for an interdisciplinary type of historical writing that would incorporate many kinds of social science data, and look at history at a far enough remove to perceive recurring cycles.


Some critics have objected that "The History Manifesto" underestimates the value of microhistory. Matt Houlbrook, senior lecturer in modern British history at the University of Birmingham, who, like Nikolas Funke, participated in a largely critical blog roundtable on "The History Manifesto" that was convened by the university's Modern British Studies research center, defended the approach heartily over e-mail. "The very best microhistories are as moving as they are intellectually challenging," he said. "Starting small becomes a way of thinking big, and carries with it a powerful ethical argument for the importance of individual lives (however ordinary or extraordinary) in our understanding of the past."

Guldi responds to such concerns by saying that "The Manifesto" is an argument for a synthesis of the macro- and the micro-. The past few decades, Guldi said on the phone, have been immensely valuable in teaching historians nuance and "sensitivity," which they'd need to write large-scale histories that don't assume or exclude too much. "It's what we began to understand as a profession, as academics, that we could tell a very long history that's very sensitive and re-centered on one of these formerly peripheral people, and that we can easily make it a more persuasive, compelling history, than the micronarrative," she says.

Jace Weaver, professor of Native American Studies and religion at the University of Georgia, who recently published "The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927," agreed, saying he believes almost any topic or question could be adapted to a long narrative history. His book is a good example of a long-scale cultural history of marginalized people that draws on small stories to make a big argument. "You can pluck these individuals and tell their personal stories," he told me over the phone, "little case studies to try to anchor it in some way." Through this technique, he said, readers can find points of connection.

If history is to become more sweeping and ambitious, young historians will need to learn to write that way. Perhaps the most telling academic response to Guldi and Armitage’s call to the longue durée is that of historians early in their careers whom I spoke to for this story: When will I have time and funding to do that?

While several young scholars I interviewed thought "big history" was worthy, and even fantasized dreamily about the chance to write such a work, they told me that realistically they didn't see such a project on the horizon. The trend in humanities Ph.D programs is to move students along quickly, reducing their time-to-degree; even if graduates get hired into a coveted tenure-track position, the tenure clock typically requires them to produce a book or two within six or seven years of employment. "I would prefer not to spend 10+ years on the next book, which is the due diligence that something longue durée would seem to require," Dael Norwood, a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at Yale, wrote.

Armitage and Guldi, who work with graduate students, had suggestions for young scholars looking to think big. "My advice to [my students], and to all historians, is always, 'What's the BIGGEST question you can answer with your particular case-study?'" Armitage wrote in an e-mail. Young scholars can also use the scholarship of others to make synthetic arguments, linking a few case studies across time, he said.

In the end, perhaps a more realistic model is one where more junior historians do micro work while trying to "think big," while those who make it to tenure can finally spread out for the longue durée. Historians who work at long time scales, after all, acknowledge that their work often builds on the microhistory of others. "These longer studies have to be synthetic," Jace Weaver said. "In 'The Red Atlantic,' I probably quote more than someone writing a standard history would....I want to showcase the very good work done on a short span by these others."

Sam White, a historian at Ohio State University who writes long histories of climate, agreed—and said that ambitious, popular works of "big history" might help bring out the full value of good microhistorical research. "I believe that these kinds of efforts to answer big questions will in some cases highlight why even seemingly obscure, highly specialized, localized work can be valuable," he said. "It's also information that can be used to help answer bigger questions."

Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate's history blog, The Vault.


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