Magazine article The American Conservative

The End of History

Magazine article The American Conservative

The End of History

Article excerpt

The End of History [The Future of History, John Lukacs, Yale University Press, 177 pages]

ACCORDING TO the philosopher E.G. Collingwood (1889-1943), the 20th century was to be dominated by two disciplines, the natural sciences and history. Indeed, all other disciplines in the social sciences were destined to collapse into history. Things turned out rather differently, however. By the 1960s, history had abased itself before a whole series of social sciences. By the 1990s, history had largely been relegated in the public mind to "infotainment," a taste largely satisfied by popular biographies and television.

At a higher level there were changes, too: for university students, history was increasingly a subject to be sampled on the cafeteria system, not a structured and directed body of knowledge. Ever smaller percentages of students took history as a university subject. Even university bookshops stocked fewer and fewer serious monographs, the prices of which steadily rose. A new term, "presentism," captured the insistent pressure of cultures in North America and Western Europe to collapse their understanding of the past into their understandings of their present-day selves.

And so John Lukacs poses a series of questions "laden with anxiety": "what will happen to books of history and to the practice of their reading? . . . [ WJhat will happen to the practice of teaching" history in universities? The outlook is gloomy: "I am now peering with my old tired eyes toward a darkening future."

Academic disciplines, after all, rise and fall. Can we rely on history to survive? Would it matter if it did not? In this brief book, Lukacs issues a series of dicta on the state of the discipline that has been his lifelong vocation. There is, he urges, a "crisis of historical study and knowledge." We are heading toward "a new kind of barbarism," part of which is a transition "from a verbal to a pictorial era." The consciousness of past time and its difference, he contends, grew up before the birth of professional historical scholarship "some time around 1700"; by implication, it could survive if academic history failed. But for Lukacs, professionalized historical scholarship - looking to "the idealized standard of objectivity"; validated by the Germanic institutions of the seminar, the Ph.D. degree, and the monograph; producing its "certified professionals" - is now under threat.

Around 1900, professional history came to identify itself as a social science; in time, new versions of this arose - "social history, quantification, multiculturalism, gender history, etc." - that diminished the teaching of history in American schools. The "crisis" in history was evident from "about 1960," when historians were "relinquishing or at least compromising the former practices of their proud historical discipline." Then was seen "the appearance of successive fads": first psychoanalysis, then "quantohistory," then multiculturalism, then that "silliest of fads," which seems to offend Lukacs most, counter-factual history. (An unexplained inconsistency, since Lukacs's later praises the classical novel for essentially tending to express "what might have happened.") Lukacs dismisses each in a few lines. All led "not to a deepening but to a shallowing" of historians' craft. Much of the social history that historians wrote under such influences "amounted to not much more than to a kind of retrospective sociology."

Yet that is inevitable since "We are now in the midst of the democratic age," and historians have to write about large numbers of people, not just the few. Moreover, today there is only a "crumbling fence between professionals and amateurs writing history" and consequently "the chaos of culture, indeed, of civilization goes on and on."

Problems of historical method are involved in this crisis of civilization, contends Lukcas. Instead of the specific statement or thought of a Napoleon or a Lincoln, the "evidences" of "democratic history" are "often generalized and abstract" since statements are made not by "the people" but in the name of "the people. …

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