I was at a library book sale this spring and chanced upon a modest-looking paperback book titled, Reflections on History and Historians (1986) by Theodore S. Hamerow. The author was a retired professor who had taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a pleasant discovery for a Badger like myself. I read the book in the following few days, immensely enjoyed it, and have decided to write a bit about it here (a cursory glance on JSTOR revealed two mediocre academic reviews of Hamerow’s work in the late 1980s, of which I liked the one in The Public Historian much more than the one in The Journal of American History).
Although he is reflecting on the decline of his profession at the end of a distinguished personal career, Hamerow is able to supplely illustrate “the crisis in history” by reserving judgment and giving each voice its due expression. He narrates well the rise and decline of the historical profession (a painful journey for an aspiring historian like myself) from the days of amateur aristocrats like Edward Gibbon, to the giddy professionalization of the craft in the late 1800s, through the failed (but valuable) experimentation after the Second World War, and up to the present epistemological dilemmas of the field today. After allowing due time for all other opinions to be heard (the pessimists and the optimists, the cliometricians and the traditionalists) Hamerow offers his own insight into the future of history departments at universities around the globe:
It certainly does not imply that history is about to disappear from the college curriculum, the way theology or rhetoric disappeared. But it does seem that history as an academic discipline is approaching the position reached by the classics sixty years ago or by philosophy forty years ago, that is, branches of knowledge, once regarded as essential, which are still included among the course offerings of any respectable college as evidence of a commitment to higher learning, but no longer with a wide appeal to students and teachers. Such disciplines gradually come to perform a ceremonial rather than a practical function in the academic community, a little like caps and gowns worn in commencement processions. History is beginning to move in this direction, and while it still has a long way to go before it reaches the exoticism of Greek and Latin, the similarity to the process by which the classics arrived at their present situation is too close for complacency. (28)
Hamerow comments further that the humanities, by becoming the status symbol of the dominant class in earlier centuries, doomed themselves in the contemporary world which no longer sees “learning as a means of achieving personal cultural fulfillment but of pursuing collective social justice” (31). History pales in comparison to social sciences like sociology and economics at playing the new game.
Hamerow’s greatest insight, though, is one which seeks to explain the raison d’être of history. That is, Hamerow frees us from the unnecessary marriage of historians to institutions:
That is what Handlin meant in reminding us that “the historian . . . will find something to say as a historian only through the creative tension that arises from exercising the full power of his imagination and understanding against the unyielding evidence that survives the past. He can continue to do so as an individual even if the crisis in the discipline should leave him without a community of investigators of which to be part.” In the present winter of their discontent, historians would do well to ponder that. (204)
In other words, the chauvinism that academic historians frequently show towards popular amateur writers of history is generally unfounded: history—truthful stories about the past—have always and will always exist to fulfill the instinctual yearning of human communities to remember years gone by. Institutions are only secondary.
I also enjoyed and took into consideration Hamerow’s comment that “[m]ost members of the profession do not concern themselves with theory, and those who do are generally no better historians than those who do not” (205). It is a pleasant and, after consideration, intuitive idea that “the nature of historical learning . . . [is] spontaneous, almost instinctive.” The last paragraph of the book reads like a manifesto for the discipline of history which can be carried as a standard soundly into the 21st century. In the closing sentence, Hamerow evokes for the final time the father Herodotus’ justification of history:
Our ultimate purpose in studying it, however, will remain one expressed long ago at the first dawning of historical consciousness: that the deeds performed by men shall not be blotted out by time, and that the great and marvelous works of Greeks and barbarians shall not be without fame. (243)
To a young student of the past, at least, Theodore Hamerow’s articulate, funny and insightful reflection on the vocation of history is as refreshing as it is sobering.