Day By Day

Saturday, February 19, 2005

History in the Public Sphere

There is a lot of interesting material available on the New Deal Network, sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. It includes documents, photo-documentary materials, songs, poems, pre-canned lesson plans, and the like. Warning, the Institute is the outreach organ of the Roosevelt Presidential Library and the materials are definitely celebratory of President Roosevelt and his programs. If used for instructional purposes they should be supplemented by other, less hagiographic, materials. Still, they're kinda cool. [Hat Tip to Kelly in Kansas]

Kelly also posts an extended comment from one of the H-Net lists by Jeff Singleton of Boston College on a question that interests me greatly -- the extent to which historians, wielding the authority of their positions [such as it is] should speak out on current controversies. I won't cite the whole thing here but will excerpt a few passages that seem particularly pertinent.

Professor Singleton, with regard to the current debate over Social Security, notes that historians actually have a lot to contribute on the issue and that "the quality of the current discussion is really a national disgrace!" A clear discussion on the origins of social security and the ways in which it evolved into the current system would certainly be valuable, but Prof. Singleton wisely points out that historians "can not and probably should not speak with a unified voice on the future of the system...." "I would certainly hope," he continues, "that the profession would be diverse enough to include different views on private accounts, for example. It would not at all help the profession's current public reputation if it seemed that everyone agreed with liberal democrats on this."

In recent years it has become common for groups of prominent historians to take highly publicized unified stands on current issues, often taking out pages in the New York Times to advertise their positions [which only shows how clueless they are]. Invariably these efforts support a liberal Democrat position on controversial subjects. Such advertisements always give me the willies because they falsely imply professional uniformity of opinion, and to the extent that they are expressions of partisanship, undermine the integrity of the profession and respect for historians everywhere outside the narrow precincts of the left [where I suspect they are regarded simply as useful idiots].

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