Yesterday my friend Mike Kugler, professor of history at Northwestern College in Iowa, wrote a an important series of Facebook posts in response to Stanley Fish’s provocative New York Times piece “Professors, Stop Opining About Trump.”
In that piece Fish, in response to the Historians Against Trump movement, argued that historians (and all academics for that matter) as a group should not be in the business of offering political opinions. He writes: “Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.” Historians, he adds, should be teaching people “how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.”
Here is Kugler’s original Facebook post:
I’m intrigued by Fish’s argument. I wasn’t troubled by the idea of the Historians Against Trump; and some of the people speaking from that platform do have sharp, well-trained historical perspectives on the history of the presidency and American populism. But Fish’s theme, that academics should cultivate a particular kind of humility about what they know and don’t know, seems true. Is there some disciplinary aspect of historical thinking that gives its practitioners special insight into the character and ideological nature of presidential candidates?
This led to what I think was a fruitful exchange with Kugler. I publish that exchange below, beginning with my response to his initial post. I hope it might be a starting point for further conversation.
Fea: Mike: This open letter is not perfect. Of course you are right in saying that not all the historians who signed it, including myself, are trained specifically on the history of the presidency or populism. And I agree with Fish’s point about humility. Actually the letter does acknowledge the limitations of the historian.
I would respond to your take on Fish’s piece in two ways. First, I think specialization is overrated. (I think it’s fair to say that we both know this, based on our teaching loads and the subjects we asked to cover at small liberal arts colleges). I think sometimes those of us who teach the survey or are trained broadly are better equipped to speak to the public than research professors who spend their careers mining one specific field. These scholars may be in a position to tell OTHER SCHOLARS about this or that sub-specialty, but they spend little time thinking about anything else. Let’s remember that we probably know more about fields outside our specialty than most Americans [and thus have a duty to engage the public based on what we know].
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I signed this document because I believe that historians, as historical thinkers, have a LOT to offer when it comes to critiquing political candidates. The emphasis in the letter on evidence-based arguments, the respect for the dignity of all humanity, the importance of context, the uses of the past in political discourse, the commitment to a civil society (rooted, presumably, in the kind of empathy that historical thinking brings), and the very fact that making America great AGAIN is ultimately a statement about the past. Trump runs roughshod over all these things. For what it’s worth…
Kugler: Like I said above, it’s Fish’s claim about humility that attracted me to his editorial, not his criticism of the Historians Against Trump. I would not be surprised if Fish would suggest that “acknowledging humility” is not the same as living up to it; I can tout my opponent’s virtues at length before I attack her. In my experience I find many academics often to be a strange combination of embattled self esteem and arrogance–including myself. Then, your suggestion about experience in teaching the survey is interesting, and I agree that careful attention to such work over the years does make a teacher a kind of expert in a wide range of historical subjects. Finally, let me ask this question, John. What candidate has lived up to the virtues of historical thinking you and I and many, many others try to embody and teach? Hasn’t Trump provoked this unusual act on the part of over 500 historians, teachers, museum staff etc because his candidacy seems unprecedented in recent history and his statements are often outrageous? If as you say “historians, as historical thinkers, have a LOT to offer when it comes to critiquing political candidates”, why haven’t other candidates who probably exhibit equally strained relations with historical method, subtlety or evidence provoked the formation of a similar group as Historians Against Trump?
Which then leads back to my question above: Is there some disciplinary aspect of historical thinking that gives its practitioners special insight into the character and ideological nature of presidential candidates?
Fea: All good questions and thoughts. I would hope that historians would call out all candidates who manipulate the past. During the course of the primary I called out Rubio, Cruz, and Sanders. I think two things might be at work here with Trump. First, I am sure politics are involved. The letter talks about being bipartisan, but it is pretty easy to invoke bipartisanship when were are talking about opposition to Trump. So I am guessing that many who signed this [letter] DO have a political axe to grind and see the letter as a legitimate way of sticking it to Trump without being overtly political. Second, I wonder if Trump’s campaign is egregiously anti-historical when compared to Hillary. (But I am sure I will get some push back on this from my conservative friends).
Kugler: The real subject for me, John, you can imagine is the nature of historical thinking as we teach and practice it. Recently I”m quite haunted by the problem of historical context as explanation/diagnosis. Historians typically answer moral, religious, political questions with stories; the stories explain why the “now” at issue looks as it does. But are such stories diagnoses in the sense that they strongly suggest action in response? Historical perspective encourages intellectual humility. But does it, as the Historians Against Trump say, teach “lessons”? I was surprised to see that word used, more than once.
Kugler made me think hard about a few things. Do we want our students and readers to learn “lessons” from the past? Of course we do. But what are those lessons? Who decides what is a “lesson” and what is not? It seems that the idea of studying history to learn “lessons” makes the doing of history first and foremost a political act. Some may have no problem with this, but I imagine that others will. Still others will admit that the doing of history must always be a political act, but our job as historians is to be on guard so that the politicization of the past does not go too far.
It seems to me that “lessons” is a morally problematic term and not always helpful to historical thinking. Does providing historical context for current events–an important work of the historian–necessarily lead to “explanation/diagnosis?” I still stand by the statement for the reasons I stated above, but I also think that we should not dismiss Fish out of hand.