In a conversation with the Wall Street Journal, JMC fellow Gordon Wood discusses the importance of studying current events in the light of history. As Wood notes in his interview, history departments have begun to focus exclusively on the “‘bottom up’ accounts of marginalized groups” while abandoning scholarship and education on America’s rich history of political debates. Wood argues that a fair and sober look at this history offers, among other things, an antidote to the panic over contemporary political problems and the recklessness that panic threatens to produce.
Gordon Wood’s evaluation of his field underscores the importance of the Jack Miller Center’s efforts to “transform student access to education in American political thought and history.” JMC works to cultivate a robust American civic culture by ensuring that there remains a place in higher education for a broad and deep view of American politics.
Polarization Is an Old American Story
…Over six decades of work on the colonial period, the Revolution and the Founding, Mr. Wood has accumulated virtually every award available to historians—the Bancroft Prize for “The Creation of the American Republic,” a Pulitzer for “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” and the National Humanities Medal, which President Obama presented him in 2010.
But as his star rose, his field suffered an extended decline amid the late-20th-century backlash against “dead white males.” Experts on revolutionary politics retired and weren’t replaced. Social history—“bottom up” accounts of marginalized groups—gained prestige. The New York Times reported in 2016 that in the previous decade universities posted only 15 new tenure-track openings for American political historians of any kind.
“I understand what they’re doing, and it’s important,” Mr. Wood says of the social historians. “We know more about slavery than we ever did.” But he argues the academic literature has grown unbalanced, neglecting crucial questions, including about the political divisions that shaped the early republic. “It’s not that they’re wrong about the killing of the Indians and slavery, but there are other things that happened too, and it’s a question of which ones do you emphasize.” . . .
What happens when they abdicate this responsibility? For one thing, a lack of historical perspective can lead to apocalyptic thinking about the present. “History is consoling in that sense,” Mr. Wood says. “It takes you off the roller-coaster of emotions that this is the best of times or the worst of times.” . . .
History could teach today’s partisans on both sides that their ideas are less radical than they think, that the American republic is stronger than they fear, and that the nation’s divisions are more surmountable than they imagine. At a time when serious historians are proving less and less capable of reaching the wider public, Americans could do worse than to regurgitate lessons from Gordon Wood.
Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. He received his B.A. degree from Tufts University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at Brown in 1969. He is the author of the Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969), which won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize in 1970, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize in 1993. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004) was awarded the Julia Ward Howe Prize by the Boston Authors Club in 2005. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different was published in 2006. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History was published in 2008. In 2011 he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama and the Churchill Bell by Colonial Williamsburg, In 2011 he also received the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, Award from the Society of American Historians, In 2012 he received an award from the John Carter Brown Library and the John. F. Kennedy Medal from the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 2015 he received the Centennial Medal from the Harvard Graduate School.
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