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Dirtbag Historicism

This is the first in a series of three summer essays. This piece introduces neomedievalism, an analytical concept recently advanced in medieval studies; the next will explore neomedievalism’s broader relevance to how historians and nonhistorians talk about history in the public sphere; the last will make some suggestions as to how all this might influence how historians approach writing history.

The dean asks the professor of Old English how her curriculum can respond to the fact that soon less than half the college students on the West Coast will claim English as their native language. Can Old English rely any longer on the implicit national and imperial argument of “our mother tongue” to justify its claims on the curriculum of the 21st century? 

The professor replies that the study of Old English is useful.

(Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism)

History is a social construct. It exists only because humans made it exist, because it is useful to humans for it to exist. Alongside the various disciplines grouped under the broad label of the humanities, history was created and developed in response to cultural needs and social conventions. And so, just like everything else humans create, history and the humanities have value only insofar as we think they do. It is not enough to merely say that history, or Old English, or the humanities, or whatever else, is useful. They must be made useful.

Utility, of course, is a relative concept, and historians of all stripes have attempted to engage with the population at large. A few, like Kathleen Biddick’s professor of Old English who shunned her dean’s helping hand, have refused the issue with platitudes about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Others, like the exasperated dean, have tried to reach a broader audience by explaining why academic history is already useful to them. Despite academics publishing books with popular presses, writing op-eds, producing acclaimed documentaries and podcasts, and doing tireless advocacy work, many people, ranging from politicians to students, still question the utility and relevance of historical study in a digital, technological age. Undergraduate enrollments are down, tenure lines go unrenewed, entire departments disappear. And it has become increasingly obvious that these approaches by academics cannot substantively engage the abuse of history, the stories that answer to identity-driven nostalgia rather than historical fact.

It was not always thus. This is not to say that history used to be free from the kinds of uses that are now derided as identity politics; there was never a time where historical fact was not subordinated to contemporary identity. But how history is used and how its abuse is received has changed over the course of the 20th century.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History