On the failure of history—and historians—without ChristRoundup
tags: religion, Christianity, Christ
When I was a brash young graduate student in the very early 1970s, Professor Lawrence Stone tried to teach me that the English Revolution and civil war were essentially caused by social and demographic factors, and that the previous emphasis on religious differences was essentially laughable. I remember telling him, with my classic humility, that he had the cart before the horse. (Extaordinarly witty, no? But it is deceptively easy to draw down on a professor when you’re 22, you’ve been admitted to the Ivy League, and you already know everything.)
It so happened that Professor Stone did not like my attention to religious beliefs as historical motivators, and so he did what any open-minded sceptic would do: He tried to get my fellowship revoked so I could not continue to study at Princeton. Amazingly, this turned out to be a violation of the rules as long as my grades were good. But it also taught me a significant lesson about how academic reputations are made (usually by attacking someone else’s theory) and retained (usually by advancing students who have become your clones).
In fairness, I did not have a scholarly temperament. I know CatholicCulture.org readers are sometimes frustrated by the abstruseness of my presentations (the rule here is to call this “intellectual depth”). But just imagine what my writing would be like if I were still a professor, with frightened graduate students hanging on my every word!
A few days ago, Thomas Van forwarded me a link to a recent article by Samuel Moyn in The Nation. Entitled Bonfire of the Humanities, Moyn’s essay reports the fear among contemporary historians that their audience is shrinking, and the concern many of them feel to find a new wave of interpretation that will boost the audience once again. He points out, quite rightly, that academics have relied for decades on a string of ever-changing theories of human behavior to keep their work fresh in the hope that it will therefore be compelling.
Historians have been no exception. I can remember being asked as a college senior, in at least one interview assessing my potential academic competence, what I thought of “quantum history”—which was then Just the Latest Thing. I was sorely attempted to burp and excuse myself. But I knew that quantum history involved the use of computers to analyze measurable data drawn from particular historical settings. And I cleverly allowed that this has some value for periods with too much data, as it enables an intelligent operator to ask the computer certain kinds of questions. But quantum history is hard on those who prefer to study the more distant past, where social, demographic and economic data are rather thin on the ground....