Monday, July 20, 2009

History's Uses, History's Abusers

The historians and historically-inclined reading this will probably want to check out Margaret MacMillan's new book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History. The distinguished historian David Kennedy reviewed it this weekend in The New York Times Book Review. Here is a sample of the review:
MacMillan lays about with rhetorical broadsword and with fearless abandon. She inveighs against the eclipse of “professional historians” by “amateurs.” She blasts the fall from fashion of political history in favor of sociology and cultural studies. She denounces identity studies of all sorts, particularly when they descend into what she calls the “unseemly competition for victimhood.” (She singles out certain Afrocentric histories for special scorn, as having “the same relationship to the past as “The Da Vinci Code” does to Christian theology.”) But she directs her most cogent criticism at the particular kind of historically constructed identity that is nationalism.

I am teaching our graduate historical method's class, "The Historian's Craft," this fall, and I wish this had come out a little earlier. But I also would not be surprised if MacMillan commits at least a few of the sins against which she inveighs, as it seems clear that she has her own ideological stances and politics that might inform the weay she sees the world and thus the practice of history.


Mark said...

The book's been getting some good reviews in several different places. MacMillan was one of my favourite undergrad profs (even though I never actually took a class with her), and it's nice to see her continue to get such positive notice.

dcat said...

Mark --
Thanks for weighing in. As I say, I really wish that I were using this book this fall for my grad class on the historian's craft because I think it would be a really useful way to think about history and the historical profession and the way history is done. Most of my students will not go on to be professional historians of course, and likely none will. But it still would behoove them, especially as so many will go on to become teachers, to engage critically with how writing history works.