Uncivil War: Current American Conservatives and Social History

By Stearns, Peter N. | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Uncivil War: Current American Conservatives and Social History


Stearns, Peter N., Journal of Social History


The political surge of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, dramatically illustrated by the results of the congressional elections of November, 1994, has highlighted the antipathies elements of this group maintain for social history, while amplifying their significance. In this setting, some discussion of the implications for social history and of possible remedies and responses is essential. One might hope, of course, that the current political climate will prove temporary, but there is no assurance of this. The use of social history as a focus for conservative attack is so interesting that it warrants some comment quite apart from the practical issues involved. Fascination aside: on the strong chance that conservatism is here to stay for a while, social history in the United States needs some strategy sessions.

Conservative dislike of social history is of course not new. Gertrude Himmelfarb had provided an initial blast at the genre, first in an Atlantic Monthly article (when this periodical was beginning to establish itself as the Defender of Civilization in matters intellectual), then in a book.(1) The Reagan triumph brought William Bennett as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Bennett quickly made his distaste for social history known. He was quoted as dismissing a project on working-class history on grounds that workers had nothing to contribute to the real record of civilization, citing the importance of further work on Plato as the funding target of choice. For a time, in the 1980s, it was informally recommended that social history, as a specific label, be removed from NEH proposals, even when the actual content might pass muster. Bennett's successor, Lynne Cheney, eased up a bit, and some sociohistorical projects began to creep back into the funded category.(2) Cheney, though now the conservative spokesperson against a variety of evils in professional historical research and teaching, continues to profess some approval of attention to diverse groups, including women, in American history. But even a bit of flexibility did not eliminate the tension between the conservative view of the past and the sociohistorical vision - a tension present also in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, when university funding cuts seriously affected social history, leaving several centers diminished.

The recent resurgence of conservative success in the United States accidentally coincided with a number of occasions for public review of what the history discipline is all about. In the autumn of 1994, after a long and laborious gestation, two sets of History Standards were issued by the National Center for History in the Schools, on United States and world history respectively.(3) Both sets quickly drew conservative ire. Editorialists, Lynne Cheney at their head, excoriated what they termed untraditional views of the American past and the downgrading of Western civilization in the larger historical approach to the rest of the world. Radio talk show hosts, ordinary citizen letter-writers, and finally the U.S. Senate by a 99-1 majority, blasted the Standards.(4) The attack on the proposed Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian, though not directly linked to social history, confirmed the gulf between most professionals and the self-appointed spokespeople for the public at large. In February, 1995, Apple Computer briefly withdrew usage of an American history CD-ROM project spearheaded by a number of eminent social historians, ostensibly because the materials included some comment on the history of homosexuality and abortion but (it was publicly suggested) probably also because of undue attention to workers and immigrants and insufficient bows to the seminal roles of American businessmen and inventors.(5)

The furor was, obviously, extraordinary. It is important to emphasize that more than social history was involved, which means that some conservative historians might approve of certain renderings of social history while participating in the wider fray. …

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