The Relevance of History
Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.
Forty years ago this week one of America’s most highly esteemed historians, David Herbert Donald, penned an op ed in the New York Times that many found shocking. Donald, a Harvard professor, explained that he had reached the conclusion that history is irrelevant and that he intended to convince his students of this when classes began in the coming weeks. This was like hearing from Julia Child that she had decided that cooking is a waste of time and that she intended to discourage would-be home chefs from from even thinking about preparing Crêpes Suzette.
Donald had not lost his mind. From the perspective of 1977, a period marked by gas shortages, deficits, and stagflation, what he was saying seemed to make sense. As he explained, the lesson of American history was the lesson of abundance. Americans, in the words of historian David M. Potter, had been “The People of Plenty.” This had shaped our character and expectations. Quoting Donald: “When the American farmer protested against exploitation by merchants, when the American laborer objected to the power of the capitalists, when the West complained about the dominance of the East, we were never required to consider any thoroughgoing restructuring of American society. To all complaints that the slices of the American pie were unevenly distributed, we responded not by making the pieces more even but by making the pie larger.”
And in 1977 the era of abundance appeared to be over.
In retrospect it is easy to see how wrong Donald was. He had prophesied that energy supplies were in a permanent state of decline. Instead, supplies grew as we discovered new ways to extract oil and gas. Far from entering a period of stagnation, we were on the cusp of one of the greatest booms in history. In 1977 the GDP was about $6 trillion. Today it’s over $16 trillion. The United States has even become energy independent, a turnabout that not even the most optimistic seers dared to prophesy back in the seventies.
From our perspective history has never seemed more relevant. After the KKK and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville it seemed that the only thing that mattered was history as we debated whether to tear down statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and even Christopher Columbus. The news from abroad also showed the vital relevance of history. In Europe far-right parties with fascist leanings drew headlines while in North Korea a communist dictator threatened to rain nuclear bombs on downtown Washington D.C., a frightening boast equal to the worst we heard during the Cold War.
What can we learn from David Donald’s mistake? He was right about the lesson American history teaches. We Americans have indeed been shaped by abundance. What he was wrong about was the inference he drew from the morning headlines. The omnipresent stories of oil shortages convinced him that it was realistic to suppose that these were harbingers of the future. He apparently didn’t realize that in making an assessment of the present he was engaged in fortune-telling, but that is what he was doing. It’s what we all do actually when we’re deciding what in hell is going on in the world. But it’s a fool’s errand of sorts. We cannot possibly know with confidence what the future will bring. None of us can, not even historians.
But this doesn’t make the past irrelevant. Historians aren’t experts on the future, they are experts on the past. Their usefulness to society is in helping us understand who we are and why we care about the things we care about. Historians can’t tell us how we’ll weather a Trump presidency, but they can tell us why it’s alarming to see KKK members parading through the streets of an American city.
That may not seem like much. But it’s wisdom of the sort that has seemed beyond the grasp of Mr. Trump, whose comments on history throughout his run for the White House and his short time in it suggest he knows too little history to be trusted to explain it. That’s unfortunate. One of his chief jobs is to explain ourselves to ourselves. And you cannot do that without understanding our history.