Yesterday, while catching up on several days’ accumulation of newspapers, I ran across Adam Hochschild’s recent op/ed on Newt Gingrich’s dissertation. I was relieved to read it, as I had been thinking for weeks that a professional historian really should weigh in on Gingrich’s whole “I’m a historian” business. While Hochschild is technically a journalist, he does a good job putting on his historian’s hat and evaluating Gingrich’s questions, and the kinds of sources he uses to answer them.
Since I have not read Belgian education policy in the Congo, 1945–1960 (though the UW Libraries does appear to have a copy), I was glad to have a bit of a summary and a review of the work (I’ve been curious, especially since learning of the subject). And, as a historian, I have to be grateful the subject has come up at all: it is definitely not everyday that you have a discussion of historical questions, sources, documents, and arguments in the pages of the newspaper!
I’ve been thinking about Gingrich’s self-proclaimed historian persona, and wondering if he would be able to make the same claim in another field (e.g., “I’m a physicist”) if he had gotten a Ph.D. in 1971, but hadn’t been a practicing member of that discipline for several decades. I have a suspicion that people are more inclined to buy the historian claim than a claim to being a natural (or perhaps even social) scientist, and that they are willing to do this because of a pervasive popular misunderstanding of the study of history, and what it is that historians actually do. More to the point, I suspect that most people think that history is not really a living discipline in the way that biology or physics or mathematics is: once it has happened, that’s it, it’s over, and something someone wrote in 1971 is just as true today as it was then. No one would make such a claim about the state of our scientific knowledge, but I think this is what people tend to believe about history.
But, of course, history is not dead, and the practice of history as a profession and discipline is a lot more akin to that of the sciences (and, indeed, any other academic field that grows and changes over time) than people usually imagine. Historiography is ever changing, and the stories we tell about the past are always informed by the historical moment in which the historian is researching and writing and thinking, and the professional and public spheres with which he or she is interacting — in other words, the state of knowledge (in all its senses) at that particular point in time.
Gingrich was writing his dissertation at a time when social history was really just emerging as a potent force in the historical discipline, so perhaps one might excuse him a bit for not thinking it essential to include Congolese voices in his story about the Congo. It is possible that no one on his committee was really pushing him to do so — and, it seems, his questions were much more administratively focused. However, I have to admit some surprise that, despite, according to Hochschild, being “clear-eyed about colonialism,” the questions he asks and the sources he depends upon — mostly from the colonial archives, which are of course located not at the Congolese periphery but at the Belgian center — reify colonial patterns and ways of thinking. Had I been present at his defense, this is the point I would have pressed him on.
Of course, my questions are informed by the intervening decades of historical scholarship in ways I cannot separate out. Perhaps it is too easy to poke holes in an old dissertation, especially one so clearly rooted in a pre-social-history way of asking and answering questions. I would say, however, that there are plenty of “old” works of history I have read that still stand up to rigorous questioning today — some of them even dry, wonky works of policy-fascinated scholars. (I’d include Paul Wallage Gates’s History of Public Land Law Development, and many of the volumes in the Economic History of the United States series put out by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in the 1920s and 1930s.) Some profs still include these classics on prelim lists, despite their age, because they still have something to teach — many of them are what we might today consider “ahead of their time.”
But here’s my broader question: once a historian, always a historian? Once a biologist, always a biologist? Is the answer the same? If you get a Ph.D. in a field (the terminal degree being one of the primary ways in which disciplines police and maintain themselves), do you keep that identity always, even if you go on to do something completely different that does not require you to keep abreast of developments in your field? And, regardless of how you might self-identify, would others — both within and without of the field — be willing to grant you that identity as well? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.