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Graduation Day

May 24, 2011

(Which is, of course, the title of the concluding double episode of Season 3 of the greatest TV show of all time.)

Today I graduated from the Yale Law School. It has been said about many schools, but about no other school is it more true that getting in is hard, graduating is easy-peasy-parcheesi. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the entire experience.

So instead of reflecting on Yale, I’m posting a speech that I drafted fourteen years ago when I got my Ph.D. in history and that I just found on my hard drive. I believe that I wrote it because I applied to speak at that graduation; in any case, I know that I didn’t speak at graduation, so it must have been rejected.

(It amuses me that I still write the same way I did back then.)

 “What is the use of history?” The French historian Marc Bloch put this question on the first page of a book entitled The Historian’s Craft. “The question,” he continues further on, “far transcends the minor scruples of a professional conscience.  Indeed, our entire Western civilization is concerned in it.”

The attentive reader, however, will note that Bloch does not answer the question.  After circling around it for a few pages, he writes, “our primary objective is to explain how and why a historian practices his trade.  It will then be the business of the reader to decide whether this trade is worth practicing.”

Today, in a period of declining enrollments and dwindling institutional support, it is incumbent upon us as historians to say just what our discipline is good for.  But while Bloch set out to convince an intellectual audience of history’s legitimacy as a branch of knowledge, today it is a matter of defending history’s value to the university, the state of California, or society as a whole—a value that is increasingly measured in monetary terms.  How does history serve the economy of California?  How does history train students to be productive members of society?  What is the return on an investment in history?

It is no secret that universities everywhere are becoming increasingly attentive to the bottom line. Because of the resulting shakeup, their various schools and departments are coming to rest along a spectrum that ranges from engineering, applied physics, and business, at one end, to literature, classics, and history, at the other.  The former are prized as the source of both innovation and skilled labor for high-tech economic growth, and are lavishly funded by the corporations that benefit from them.  The latter increasingly appear an atavistic remnant of yesterday’s university, or an obligatory nod toward  a notion of the liberal arts to which few people any longer subscribe.  It is up to us to either accept or resist this devaluation of history.

When I came to Berkeley almost seven years ago, I assumed that history was useful, and that I fully deserved the money the state of California would contribute to my education.  In my first two years, I learned how to argue that point—and to argue it convincingly, I like to think.  Now … I’m not quite so certain.

Which, I think, is a good thing.  We should not accept with complacency our own arguments for our importance.  At this year’s convention of the American Historical Association, I attended a panel on downsizing in the profession.  What I was struck by was the virtual consensus that history is valuable in and of itself, that downsizing is bad not only for historians but for society as a whole, and that it is simply a matter of pointing this out to the public at large, which, upon recognizing this, will presumably give us lots of money.

When did a profession supposedly devoted to critical thinking become so uncritical of itself?  We have all absorbed the truisms about how History with a capital H is essential to a healthy society, but how much history do we really need?  How many historians?

It’s time to face those questions squarely.  Let’s not do what Marc Bloch did, and simply prove to ourselves the intellectual merit of our own research methods.  Let’s face the problem he raised before setting it aside:  “it is undeniable that a science will always seem to us somehow incomplete if it cannot, sooner or later, in one way or another, aid us to live better.”  But at the same time, let’s not give in to the world-weary, overeducated cynicism that says history isn’t good for anything except providing employment for people whose principal activity is publishing articles and books that only they can read.  Let’s find out if history really is good for something, besides esoteric academic debates.

As historians, it is up to us to answer this question.  But it cannot be answered with clever sophistry or impassioned debate; only actions will suffice.  If history is supposed to be essential to the moral conscience of our nation, then we have to stand up for what is right, and not bury our heads in books and journals.  If it is to instill in future generations an appreciation of our shared human heritage, then we must teach history—from elementary to graduate school—with enthusiasm and conviction, not simply to pay the rent.  If our research really does address questions vital to our understanding of the world, we should make it compelling for any reader, not just the academic specialist.  If anyone is to learn lessons from history, it is up to us to draw them for all to see.

And if we can’t live up to these demands, let’s admit that history is merely a form of entertainment, in which case, Bloch said, “all minds capable of better employment must be dissuaded from the practice of history.”

I address this challenge to all of today’s graduates, not just to those of my newly doctored colleagues who will become what are known as “professional historians.”  We came to this ceremony by many paths and will leave it for many futures, but we are all historians.

As for many of us, today is my last day in academics.  I will probably never write another history paper nor teach another history class.  Yet I will remain a historian, because studying history has made me, in part, who I am today.  I have learned a great deal in the past seven years, both in and out of class.  I need no longer, as one of my friends proposed to do in his orals, respond to every question by citing the Reform Bill of 1867.  I have learned that the past invariably shapes the present, and that we cannot understand why something is the way it is without understanding where it came from.  I know that there are many answers to every question, and that the motivations and interpretations of human behavior and experience are endless.  And I know there is perhaps no more daunting task than to truly understand why people do the things they do, or even to understand a single human being.

These, to me, are the lessons of history, and we should all be proud to have learned them.  Some of us will go on to teach them to future students.  But for the rest of us, being a historian does not stop as we leave this theater today.  It only becomes more difficult.

Within the walls of academia, what matters is being right—getting the right answer, the brightest new idea, or the most compelling interpretation.  But too many people think that personal brilliance and the pursuit of knowledge provide a kind of terrestrial sanctification.  The most important thing I learned here is that being right isn’t always what counts.  It’s more important—and more difficult—to live your life well, to treat the people around you with unwavering fairness, respect, and generosity.  And if history is to prove useful, it should help us to meet that challenge.

We who have studied history should know not to overestimate our own intellectual pursuits.  We, too, like the people we study, are human beings condemned to imperfection in an imperfect world.  We should distinguish ourselves by our perspective, our judgment, and our realization that great changes are made little by little, one person at a time.  We have not been trained to be inventors or statisticians or keepers of sacred texts, but to understand the adventures and misadventures of human beings.  In whatever your walk of life, I encourage you to use your training, to draw upon your knowledge of history and your capacity for understanding and say, “I am a historian, and this is where I stand.”  And perhaps, together, we can prove that history, and historians, do matter.

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One Comment
  1. Peter Noonan permalink

    Truth endures!
    Congratulations on a not inconsequential accomplishment.
    Gaudeamus igitur!

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