Monday, January 10, 2011

Tomlins on the Lessons of History

The December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History (the monthly newsmagazine of the AHA) is now open to non-subscribers. As usual, it includes lots of useful announcements and professional advice (e.g., "Job Market Etiquette," by Katharine Hijar). I like to spotlight the "Art of History" column, which never fails to make me re-think just what it is I'm doing as an historian. This month's column is by former guest blogger Chris Tomlins (UC Irvine). He writes about "the lessons of history" -- by which he does not mean (to use examples from his own work) "lessons about the centrality of ideas of freedom and unfreedom to American civic identity" or "about the cruelties of laws, customs, and institutions that deprive men and women of freedom’s substance." These "are lessons the way metaphors are lessons." Instead, he seeks lessons about the relationship between past, present, and future.

A summary cannot do justice to the piece, but to give a brief glimpse, Tomlins opens by outlining the conceptions of history that historians today have to offer. Borrowing from Nietzsche, he locates three: narrative history, "history as science" (or "simple accumulation" of knowledge about the past), and "complex accumulation" (treating all past phenomena as radically underdetermined). These are different, yet all "begin by putting the past in its place." Tomlins devotes the rest of the column, which you can read here, to his own ruminations on the relationship between "the past’s 'true image' and its creation" in the present.