The recent chatter here, and elsewhere, about Bill Cronon’s blog, Scholar as Citizen, has gotten me to thinking about another thread that’s been running through our discussions. That is: how we ought to approach the communities whose historical antecedents we study.
As some of you will recall, Hank took issue with a sentiment that Betty Smocovitis voiced in her interview with Megan Raby (available here). The point of disagreement was whether we should strive to craft historical narratives that scientists themselves will be able to read, such that they recognize themselves (or their forebears). To paraphrase somewhat, Betty and Megan’s sentiment was, “I want my own work to be able to be read by scientists, and they can ... learn something.” A scientist should not come away from having read a piece of historical writing and think “that doesn’t look like me at all,” that “it’s offensive or insulting.”
If I understood him correctly, Hank thinks that it should not matter one way or the other what scientists think of our work. If we are historians properly so-called, we need to develop our own standards of evidence, proof, and plausibility. To quote from his comment to the original posting, “why does an explanans need to be amenable to a given explanandum? We wouldn't say this about slave-owners or politicians or philosophers.” (Hank also wrote a more extended piece about this, which you can see here.)
So far, I’ve kept out of this debate. But I should admit that I silently sided with Hank (a rare thing to have happen, let me assure you!). I care deeply about science, so much so that I have spent about half of my time as a graduate student in an evolutionary biology lab studying the population genetics of a Lycaenid butterfly.
I’ve always seen this as a part of my training, an effort to understand how scientists work and think by becoming a part of their world. I’ve also done it to boost my own confidence, precisely because I want to be able to do historical work that some scientists themselves might find puzzling of foreign. I want to be able to talk to scientists about the history of their discipline, but if we see things differently I want to have the credibility to hold my ground and perhaps even change someone's mind.
It’s exactly this last point--about wanting to engage in a genuine conversation among equals--that’s got me to thinking that Megan and Betty are on to something. And I think what they are driving at shares a lot in common with what Cronon is trying to do over at his blog.
I think there is a fundamental issue at stake here about what we understand the value of historical work to be. I think most historians agree that a fundamental requirement of good scholarship is that it try to understand the past in its own terms. But does that mean we should therefore care about the past purely for its own sake? Aren’t we, after all, interested in the past at least in part because of how it informs our understanding of the present?
If we grant that one legitimate reason to study history is that we believe doing so has benefits for our lives in the here and now, I think we can see why historians of science would want to be able to talk to scientists. The idea is that we should engage scientists in genuine conversation, rather than alienate them. In doing the latter, we only marginalize our own contributions to what I think we all agree are pretty high-stakes discussions.
And my sense is that Cronon is trying to do something similar. He is very candid about having a deep respect for Wisconsin politics. He actively and very deliberately fashions himself as a kind of pragmatic and independent centrist rather than a political ideologue.
Cronon has his own political views, and he makes no attempt to hide those. But I think that Ben Schmidt is right to say that a part of what Cronon seems to think (or hope) his blog can accomplish is raise the tenor of a heated political debate. And I agree this is a valuable thing for historians to do. But it does mean that we will have to get involved in the debate. That we will have to engage people in conversation. And that, I think, means that we have to give them the respect of taking their views seriously and on good faith.
So here's my two cents: to the extent that historians believe they have something genuine to offer, I think we indeed have a responsibility to come down from the ivory tower and engage in pubic debate. However, this assumes there is a genuine debate in which we can get involved to begin with. One of the saddest things about what’s happened to Cronon is that Wisconsin Republicans have responded to his good-faith effort with what amounts to a legal slap in the face.