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Think Piece

Thucydides, Canon, and Western Civilization

by Emily Rutherford

Columbia University, where I study, is one of very few American colleges where all undergraduates are required to complete a sequence of survey courses in western civilization. Many history graduate students eventually teach in the Core sequence, and it’s impossible to avoid the thousands of eighteen-year-olds walking around with copies of the Iliad, the Bible, and the Greek tragedy of the year. As a result, I’ve become preoccupied by the pedagogical uses of these ancient texts today, what their significance is to those who don’t study the ancient world, how our reactions to them are filtered through centuries of other readers’ translations and interpretations, and what my own responsibility as someone who hopes to be a university teacher of European history is to Western-civilization narratives.

The Core rubs off on other corners of Columbia. We first-year PhD students began our required introductory historiography course by reading Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. The last time I read Thucydides, it was for a reading course in Victorian intellectual history, in the Greek edition edited by the great reforming headmaster of Rugby Thomas Arnold. Like many of his contemporaries, Arnold revered Thucydides as a guide to modern statecraft and also as a pagan whose theory of history was assimilable to a Christian worldview. Reading the text again, it was easy to see why Thucydides’ perspective on the imperial ambitions of a great naval power, and his commitment to tracing the processes behind that power’s political and military decision-making, might have seemed significant to early modern and modern British imperial subjects whose education and culture taught them to look to antiquity for political, philosophical, and strategic guides. It’s also comprehensible that present-day political and international-relations theorists, working within a philosophical tradition long infused with classical learning, turn to key passages from Thucydides like the “Melian Dialogue” in Book Five in order to illustrate their own claims about the negotiation of political power.

Less obvious, however, is the relationship between what Thucydides and his contemporaries saw as the practice of history and the practice into which twenty-first-century American doctoral students are socialized through institutions like the first-year historiography seminar. Today, we are often nudged away from historical accounts whose primary purpose is to elucidate strategic political and military decision-making; very different theoretical and ethical standards govern our evidence-gathering and how we make use of oral testimony; fewer professional historians see it as their job to record national history for a first audience of compatriots who took part in that history; our professional practice has a first loyalty to the written archive that was not conceivable in the late fifth century BCE. Thucydides’ method is not, practically speaking, among the menu of options from which apprentice historians are invited to choose when using their coursework to conceptualize their own approaches to the past. While a reception history of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War‘s role in shaping the relatively young academic discipline of history would be an interesting project, there’s an alterity to this nearly 2,500-year-old text that can’t be overcome: saying that it’s of its moment and yet there are still lessons to be learned from it (one member of our class who works on recent American history and uses oral sources certainly thought so) is fundamentally different to saying, as many historiography seminars do, that a twenty-year-old work of high-theoretical linguistic-turn history is of its moment and yet there are still lessons to be learned from it.

A significant strand of public-intellectual debate holds that history has lost a position it once held as magistra vitae and as the deciding analytic of statecraft—hearkening back to a golden age imagined, perhaps, out of a sense that reading ancient historians like Thucydides was once more fundamental to the study of the past than it is today. The data don’t necessarily support a narrative of history’s decline and fall. But in the discussion around Guldi and Armitage’s History Manifesto and in other forums, historians keen to recover this statecraft side to history’s educational potential have advocated approaches that might do this—taking on big narratives and big ideas with methods old and new—and have presented them as a favorable alternative to what they see as a dominant but short-sighted mode of academic history. Those who make this argument hold that this “microhistory” or “antiquarianism,” by letting the archive (instead of concerns found in policy or the public discourse) dictate the historical narrative and claims to significance, is necessarily limited in its impact.

I have many concerns about this artificial binary, but it’s probably best not to wade into them here, except to say that the “microhistorical”/”antiquarian” form of history patently also has important lessons to teach undergraduates and the wider public, a group not limited to policymakers. Putting Thucydides in dialogue with this media discussion ably shows how a policy-, narrative-, and big-ideas-focused brand of history, and an archivally-faithful, perhaps more specialized or narrower in scope, form of history are to some extent two sides of the same coin. The Peloponnesian War‘s status as an ancient text, the specifics of its composition, the stories of early modern and modern readers who have responded to it and thus made it the canonical take on politics and warfare that it continues to be, may not always be stories of interest to those who hope that historians can tell them how to assess the consequences of a strategic decision. But the latter can’t be explained historically without the former, and it’s possible for accounts of both to emerge from a reading of Thucydides’ text itself. Moreover, these factors all feed into how we trace—and justify—large-scale narratives of European ideas and culture to undergraduates, and there’s no telling which bit might make the most difference to a given student.

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Think Piece

The Gay Past and the Intellectual Historian

by Emily Rutherford

In the papers this week was the news (slow, it seems, to come to the mainstream media’s attention) that, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, University of British Columbia graduate student Justin O’Hearn helped to fund the UBC library’s purchase at auction of two rare 1890s homoerotic novels, Teleny and Des Grieux. Teleny, a story of a love affair between two men which includes explicit sex, has been reprinted in modern editions and is fairly widely available to researchers, but Des Grieux, a sequel (the title refers to Teleny‘s protagonist) hasn’t and isn’t. O’Hearn’s campaign was spurred by his intention to edit a critical edition of the text and to incorporate it into his dissertation.

Unless specific circumstances caused anglophone sexually explicit/pornographic novels of historical importance to be reprinted in twentieth-century (often badly-made, pirated) editions, they tend to languish, sometimes only in single copies, in the British Library’s Private Case holdings, accessible only to those who can afford the trip to London and work up the courage to collect pornography from the librarians in the Rare Books reading room. Part of O’Hearn’s stated interest in these two texts is that Oscar Wilde has long been held to have been one of the anonymous authors behind Teleny, and bibliographer of erotic fiction Peter Mendes argues that Des Grieux was written by the same group, including Wilde. Association with canonical literary figures gives pornography redeeming social importance, and leads to reprints: while (surprisingly) little Private Case Victorian pornography is available online or in modern editions, one text you can reliably find is the flagellation periodical The Pearl, to which the poet Algernon Swinburne is believed to have contributed. The association of Wilde with these two novels, however, has an added connotation: thanks to the drama surrounding his 1895 gross indecency trials, and more recently to Richard Ellman’s biography and the 1997 biopic starring Stephen Fry based upon it, Wilde has been viewed as a great tragic hero of gay mythology, whose (possibly fictitious) courtroom defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” has firmly established him as a key figure in a gay male literary and cultural canon. In a popular historical narrative centered on a teleology of gay liberation, the scandalous story of Wilde’s downfall assumes an outsize role.

I’ve been writing about male homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England for some years now, and when I first came to the subject as a college junior it seemed extremely important to push against narratives which look to the past for gay heroes who stand out because they seem to us to be boldly ahead of their time, and instead to insist that men who wrote and talked about and practiced same-sex sex and love prior to the last couple decades of the nineteenth century simply weren’t gay—it was bad history to connect them to later figures who did see gayness as an identity category. My research on John Addington Symonds shows that he lived in a milieu where there were many competing models for understanding the nature of same-sex desire, and also that—however important we might believe his writing on homosexuality to be today—he was predominantly known during his life and in the years after his death as a historian of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. He also had a wife, four daughters, and several female friends. As Sharon Marcus has written, we have to squelch our present-day impulses to see homosexuality as the card that trumps all other salient facts about a historical figure’s life and work, and homosocial, -erotic, and -sexual bonds as subversive of hetero ones and of the nuclear family. For Symonds—or, as Marcus points out, for Wilde, who also was married, for some years edited a women’s magazine, and had meaningful friendships with women—this simply wasn’t the case (Marcus 261).

And yet. Both Symonds and Wilde and their twentieth-century reception played significant roles in bringing into being our modern conceptions of homosexual sexual orientation (as congenital, unchooseable and unchangeable, both physiological and psychological, constituted in opposition to heterosexuality) and of gay (sub)culture. It wouldn’t be right to treat them in the same way as the countless other unknown men in their period who had close homoerotic friendships/relationships (in which sex may or may not have played a part), who consumed homoerotic pornography, who may have been married, and who didn’t consider themselves homosexuals or take a public stand in the name of a nascent identity category. Furthermore, there is something important and powerful—and relevant to academic historians—about narratives of gay history (or other kinds of minority identity history) and their ability to inspire those living in other times and places. Symonds relates in his autobiography that he first gained an inkling of same-sex desire by reading Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as a teenager, and it is remarkable how often in twentieth-century gay life-writing and fiction moments of self-discovery are framed in terms of encounters with the past through books and the discovery of authors or other historical figures whom the reader is able to label as gay. Even in our moment of widespread acceptance of gay identity as a category of cultural diversity, these narratives compel. Witness the recent furore over Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which set out to tell a tragic, Wilde-esque story about a national treasure who was forced to suffer at the state’s hands for his sexual orientation (under the same law with which Wilde was sentenced), but wound up, as Christian Caryl has incisively argued, in the process managing to desecrate basically everything the genius and war hero achieved in his life other than being found guilty of “gross indecency”—thus doing violence to other ways in which Turing might be seen as an inspiring figure from the “gay past.”

Numerous historical projects recognize and respect a wider public’s desire for an inspiring narrative of gay history while still emphasizing how much has changed in a relatively short span of time about the concept of sexual orientation. OutHistory.org is an important public resource written by professional historians, while historians including George Chauncey and Matt Houlbrook have written academic books which bring to life the fabric of gay communities of the past while understanding them on their own terms. I’m excited also to read Robert Beachy’s new book Gay Berlin, just out from Knopf, which looks like it expands on his 2010 article about “The German Invention of Homosexuality” to show how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German thinkers and political campaigners were pioneers in using science to define the homosexual as a kind of person (who could then be advocated for as a protected class). In the book, he supplements this argument with a lot of detail about Berlin’s flourishing queer subculture in the years before the Nazi period—in the process urging us not to see early-twentieth-century Germany simply as a lead-up to the rise of Hitler.

When you work on sexuality, it’s easy to get typecast as someone who does only that—and, at times, as someone who doesn’t have the intellectual chops to engage in meaty, intricate, ideas-focused topics. It’s also easy to get bound up in the salaciousness of it all, reading pornography for work and speculating about dead people’s sex lives. The rich literature and vibrant debates around the history of homosexuality as a concept and around the lives of people like Wilde, Turing, and other far less famous individuals show, though, that “who had sex with whom, and how” is one of the least important questions a historian can ask. As I’ve tried to show here, the questions about the methods and uses of history that this subfield actually does raise are as challenging and urgent as in any other.

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Think Piece

Intellectual “Entanglements” and the Status of Modern British History

by Emily Rutherford

In my post about the History Manifesto last week, I wrote that one of the things I want to explore on this blog is the “crisis” in which the national history of modern Britain has found itself in the last fifteen or so years. As the historical discipline has become increasingly global in its outlook, British history rightly no longer enjoys the disproportionate emphasis it once had in North American departments. Now that it is no longer professionally viable for graduate students to focus in this one national field, and thanks also particularly to the theoretical interventions of subaltern studies and new methods in imperial history, it is much rarer to find a North American historian who will take the risk of specializing in British (rather than imperial, comparative European, or Atlantic World) history. (Given its status as the national history, the field is not in anything near the same level of decline in the UK.) Furthermore, it is harder to justify the relevance of studies which focus on actors who had little awareness of themselves as imperial subjects, whose lives were lived largely within Britain and shaped by distinctively British cultural and social factors. I write about people who, while they often corresponded with Europeans, Americans, Indians, and others, lived their professional lives in the Oxbridge-London triangle, rarely spoke other living languages (Latin and Greek were another matter), and only left the UK very occasionally for a lecture tour in America or a holiday in the Alps. It’s all a bit… parochial.

Still, I’d like to say a little about a new, very global, even anti-British-history, book that unexpectedly offers some opportunities for historians concerned with telling stories about intellectual cultures distinct to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. Kris Manjapra’s Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire, published by Harvard last year, undertakes an exciting experiment in deciding deliberately to leave Britain out of a story of encounters between German and Indian intellectuals in the period roughly 1880-1930. Indeed, argues Manjapra, Indian and German intellectual relationships in a variety of fields, from experimental science through philology and psychoanalysis to visual art, were formed in explicit opposition to a perception of British hegemony around the globe (9). He traces significant and surprising connections among both left- and right-wing ideas, which eventually had major consequences for European and world politics. German Orientalist scholarship produced in collaboration with British imperial agents was adopted by the Nazi ideology of Aryanism; an anti-imperialist discourse in which German and Indian Marxists participated had unintended consequences in fascist theories of Lebensraum. But before the rise of the Nazi Party, German “post-Enlightenment” thought and Indian collaborations carried the possibility of a third way for imagining the global order, between Western European liberalism and Soviet communism—potential that was eventually firmly eclipsed by the the Cold War’s binary division of the world and the rise of a “Third World” discourse to which India was consigned (276, 290). Manjapra deftly maps these rapidly-shifting political stakes through the first decades of the twentieth century, in the process making a good case for intellectual history’s ability to demonstrate how the unintended consequences of ideas can bear a causal relationship to world-historical events.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid how Britain as a national category and British actors who helped to broker connections between Indians and Germans haunt Manjapra’s account. There were two particular examples that grabbed my attention. First, the famous German philologist and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller took on Indian students and played a pivotal role in founding an academic school of German Orientalism whose fate in Germany and India Manjapra traces throughout the book. But Max Müller did his work in England, in Oxford, surrounded by English as well as German and Indian students and colleagues, in a rich intellectual and cultural context that bore a closer and more complicated relation to British imperialist, anti-imperialist, and simply-apathetic-to-imperialism thought than Manjapra seems to want to let on. Second, in a smaller episode, Manjapra describes Freud’s correspondence with the Indian psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose, who along with other Indian psychoanalysts infused Freud’s ideas with classical Indian philosophy, creating a new form of psychoanalysis with a particular nationalist valence. But Bose did not know German: he and Freud corresponded in English, using not Freud’s own jargon but the English translations James Strachey had created, such as “id” and “ego,” and in the process telling the historian a great deal about what a British or English intellectual context might have to do with this Indo-German encounter.

In the story of Freud and Bose, Manjapra says that English functions merely as a “trade language” (225), but there is much more than this to be said about the role of a distinctively British intellectual context and actors who operated in relation to it. Manjapra and other historians have redrawn maps of geopolitics and intellectual encounters that destabilize uncritical assumptions of Britain’s centrality and relevance, but there’s no reason that British historians should not regard this as an invitation to reformulate and strengthen claims for the relevance of the British context to understanding transnational episodes in intellectual history such as the late-nineteenth-century development of philology or psychoanalysis. In the process, my suspicion is that it will become clearer how British historians’ rich understandings of the cultural milieux in which such ideas were developed can aid in understanding their movement across borders; what forms of intellectual and cultural exchange were practiced between British and German writers and academics (an under-examined topic in this period); and perhaps also what relationship there is between imperial might and less hierarchical forms of international intellectual relationships like those Age of Entanglement seeks to describe.

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Think Piece

Reflections of an AHA First-Timer

by Emily Rutherford

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
—David Lodge, Small World, in The Campus Trilogy, 223

Lodge’s novel, a brilliant pastiche of medieval romance which traces the peregrinations of several international conference-going English professors, climaxes at “the Big Daddy of conferences,” the Modern Language Association’s Annual Meeting. His extended description of that meeting is worth a read for anyone who, like Lodge’s ’70s literary scholars, found themselves at a Hilton in midtown Manhattan last weekend awash in sensory overload. One of the things Lodge’s novel gets most right is how much of the point of academic conferences, particularly enormous ones, is about anything other than the ideas being exchanged: the people exchanging them, the social and political contexts in which they are being devised and exchanged. At AHA 2015, for every panel, like those we highlighted, devoted to new developments in the scholarship of ideas, there was a panel about the historical context of Ferguson, or about Leftist takes on the meaning of “public intellectual” and how to be one. One of the most important things going on at the AHA was how historians worked together to imagine how they might be historians in the world, whether that meant debating whether to suspend the AHA bylaws to allow a resolution regarding Israel and Palestine to be considered at the Business Meeting, countless sessions about digital humanities, social media, and more traditional forms of public history, or the usual and essential spate of sessions about teaching, one of the most important forms of public engagement.

From the panels I attended, it was clear that what a “public intellectual” is can be an intellectual-historical question. So can questions of field and relevance, and whether politically and socially conscious history in the United States can be produced and taught as effectively by non-US historians as by those who do the national history. But just as important as all this are closely related questions about who is debating these issues, how they interact, the personal commitments that inform their stances on history, society, and politics, and what happens when you pour them all into the hallways of a Manhattan Hilton and ratchet up the tension by requiring many of them to undergo high-stakes job interviews in the process. As effective as (though certainly very different from!) Lodge’s novel in explaining how this is the case was outgoing AHA President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, which mapped the moral field in which a variety of different nineteenth-century French racial theorists operated. Goldstein stressed the need to recover these theorists’ own debates about the moral content of scientific versus philosophical approaches, allowing us to move towards a more complex understanding of their different views than a blanket condemnation of their distasteful imposition of racial hierarchies allows. The published version of the address will appear in the February issue of the AHR, and perhaps I will delve more deeply into its content then. But as I listened in-person on Saturday, it seemed that the method Goldstein was modeling for us could easily be applied to the AHA itself, to the complexities of the moral and political implications of our work, the unintended consequences of decisions made on such grounds, and the ways in which personal contingencies can shape the moral field in which it seems possible, as a scholar or intellectual, to operate.

The most revealing aspect of the conference was the five hours I spent as a shift-worker for the Local Arrangements Committee, during which I, in the company of many other New York-area grad students, ran around the Hilton in an orange t-shirt, providing directions, answering questions, and doing headcounts in the sessions. I must have come into contact with a hefty proportion of the conference attendees, and it was interesting to note who was kind and respectful when they asked for directions, even if they were senior scholars; who remembered that we had met before; who banded together in groups because they had been grad students together 25 or fifty years ago; who made a beeline for the receptions as soon as the panels were over; who (like the two military history buffs who came up to me looking for a lecture on George C. Marshall) had never heard of the AHA before. My own research on nineteenth-century England shows that intellectual communities and the making of their history occurs just as much in these circumstances as in what can be discerned through formal published conference proceedings, journals, or monographs. Understanding the historical profession as a thing today also entails understanding who historians are, why, as much as what, they think about the past, the webs of their friendships, how they treat graduate students, which way they voted on whether to suspend a bylaw and the discussion that got them there.

I hope there wasn’t as much sexual scandal at AHA 2015 as there is at David Lodge’s fictional MLA. But in choosing to account for conferences in the terms of romance, he has an important point to make about the relationship of intellect to everything else.

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Intellectual history

History of Ideas at the AHA

by Emily Rutherford

AHA2015 logo
JHIBlog readers attending the American Historical Association Annual Meeting might be interested in the following sessions, just a few highlights amid the smorgasbord on offer. Visit the official Program for detailed panel descriptions and information about location and session participants:

Friday, 1-3pm

13. History of the Human Sciences
19. “Of Numbers’ Use, the Endless Might”: Research at the Intersection of History and Mathematics
26. The Resurgence of Science in Historical Method

Friday, 3.30-5.30pm

Magna Carta in the Age of Enlightenment, Revolution, and Empire: Rethinking Constitutional History on the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

Saturday, 8.30-10am

65. Challenging and Extending Reinhart Koselleck’s Theories of Historical Time
79. Political Philosophy across Translingual and Transnational Confucian Heritages
87. Toward a Trans-imperial Intellectual History of Central Eurasia, 1644–1820
Association of Ancient Historians 1. Inside the Minds of Ancient Writers: Investigating Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, and Procopius in the Historical Period from the Second Century BCE to the Seventh Century CE

Saturday, 10.30am-12pm

92. Historians as Public Intellectuals in Comparative National Context
114. Provincializing European Intellectual History

Saturday, 2.30-4.30pm

142. Religion in Europe after the “Secular” 1960s
Toynbee Prize Lecture: From Globalization to Global Warming: A Historiographical Transition
Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing: The Practice of Book History: Between and beyond Disciplines

Sunday, 9-11am

162. From Source to Subject: Historical Writing and the “Archival Turn”
175. The Future of the Book Review

Sunday, 11.30-1.30pm

Conference on Latin American History 36: Education in the Nineteenth-Century Americas
189. America and the Left: Past and Present

Sunday, 2.30-4.30pm

224. History and Literature: The State of the Relationship
228. New Meanings, Old Words: Muslim Reading Practices across Time and Space
241. Toward a Global History of Sexual Science, c. 1900-70, Part 1: Global Transfers of Sexual Knowledge: Dubbing, Appropriations, and Translations
American Society of Church History 27: Confessional Boundaries in the Reformation Era

Monday, 8.30-10.30am

Paperwork/Paper-at-work
Toward a Global History of Sexual Science, c. 1900-70, Part 2: Sexual Science as a Global Formation: The Multi-directionality of Intellectual Exchange

Monday, 11am-1pm

291. The Transnational Politics of Journalism in Early Postwar Germany

Also of special interest to modern intellectual historians are the series of Presidential Sessions on “Reassessing the Influence of Classic Theory on Historical Practice”; these are indicated in the print program with a gavel icon and are summarized here. And of course, don’t miss the plenary session, “The New York Public Library Controversy and the Future of the American Research Library,” on Friday evening, and 2014 President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, “Toward an Empirical History of Moral Thinking: The Case of Racial Theory in Mid-Nineteenth Century France,” on Saturday evening.

Keep an eye out for us, too! Two out of three JHIBlog editors will be gallivanting about the meeting, and I’ll be tweeting @echomikeromeo. If you recognize us in the flesh, say hi!

Categories
Think Piece

The History Manifesto and Its Discontents

by Emily Rutherford

David Armitage and Jo Guldi published their History Manifesto online and in print in October, and since then the critiques have begun to roll in. There has been plenty of chatter on Twitter and an interesting set of responses from a group of graduate students and faculty at the Modern British Studies program at the University of Birmingham. But most trenchant to date is a response from historians of Britain Deborah Cohen (Northwestern) and Peter Mandler (Cambridge), shortly to be published in the American Historical Review with Armitage and Guldi’s reply.

Cohen and Mandler take sharp aim at the “fantasy” (8 – page numbers refer to the draft PDF published on Cohen’s personal website) that they argue the History Manifesto has constructed, of history’s increasing overspecialization and declining relevance. Their primary criticisms are twofold. First, they take issue with Armitage and Guldi’s interpretation of historian Benjamin Schmidt’s data about the last several decades of history PhDs, as well as other evidence Armitage and Guldi present in order to suggest that dissertations’ horizons have contracted since the 1960s. In fact, they write, the last four decades of AHR book reviews show that “There’s no evidence either that historians concentrated on long-horizon research before 1968 or that there was a fall off afterwards, when the great shrinkage supposedly began” (4). This, therefore, undermines the urgency of Armitage and Guldi’s central claim that history needs a return to large-scale, narrative, political history in order to reestablish its relevance to policymakers and world events. Second, Cohen and Mandler turn, as many others have, to Armitage and Guldi’s representation of “microhistory” as the antithesis of the “longue durée” history they advocate. Cohen and Mandler write that Armitage and Guldi’s “microhistory” is a caricature, incorporating the traditional definition of microhistory as well as an “overflowing grab-bag of other sorts of history” (7), such as those of race, class, and gender, which in fact have not confined themselves to short time-scales. They point to specific instances in which these “new” forms of history have had precisely the concrete effects upon policy for which Armitage and Guldi wish: such as the Lawrence v. Texas case which overturned sodomy law, in which a pivotal historians’ amicus brief drew on kinds of history which Armitage and Guldi disparage. Finally, Cohen and Mandler point out that, whatever the role of historians in policy, history retains a serious hold among a diverse public in large part because of the ever-widening range of subjects and approaches it embraces, and that this is as much or more a claim for its significance (and success) than any crisis narrative focused on policy.

Whatever the merits of Armitage and Guldi’s and Cohen and Mandler’s respective stances, what becomes clear in this exchange is the significance of intellectual-historical approaches to finding a role for our discipline in today’s society and polity. Cohen and Mandler’s critique rests on their claim that the intellectual genealogy Armitage and Guldi trace, of history’s declining relevance through its increasing specialization and increasing marginality, is a spurious and lazy one (see e.g. p. 5). In calling Armitage and Guldi to task not for their political solutions to the alleged humanities crisis but for their methodology as professional historians (at least one of whom does have a background in intellectual history), Cohen and Mandler made a choice. That choice may turn out to shift the terms of how the History Manifesto is being debated in an interesting way, away from rhetoric about Crisis and (as happened in the course of arguments twenty years ago about the linguistic turn) back to how we as specialists practice our craft. As historian Rachel Hope Cleves wrote on Twitter last week, and as the master’s students at Birmingham who engaged with the History Manifesto this autumn have already demonstrated, this discussion is well on its way to becoming a key set of readings for students learning to think about controversies within the discipline.

From the Birmingham blog to Mandler and Cohen, the major published engagement with the History Manifesto thus far has come from historians trained in the British field. Indeed, Armitage and Guldi were both trained as British historians as well. As someone who works in (and defends the relevance of) the British national field, I’m interested in what this says about the field and its relevance to historical practice more widely. What about the issues the History Manifesto raises would interest British historians in particular? Part of it may stem from the crises this field in particular has confronted in recent decades, as British historians have striven to adapt to a historiographical landscape in which the centrality of the British Isles cannot be taken for granted and have reimagined themselves as historians of empire, Europe, or the Atlantic world. Part of it also may stem from British history’s long-held interest in social history and problems of class: Cohen and Mandler’s criticisms touch in part on the possibility of elitism inherent in Armitage and Guldi’s implication that policymakers, rather than the public, are a historian’s appropriate target audience, and a similar tension was present in the Birmingham responses (and some comments Armitage made about them at a History Manifesto event I attended at Columbia University on November 17, 2014). These days, “impact” and “public engagement” are built into how academics at UK universities must represent their research to the government, and so perhaps such questions are felt more keenly by those whose careers are in or connected to the UK.

The issue of what it means to be a historian of (modern) Britain is one which I hope to think about on this blog in the months to come, and the History Manifesto debate may well help to frame that question. It has always seemed to me, though, that historians who teach in universities have their public-engagement factor built in: won’t we all be asked at some point in our careers whether we can teach the survey?