Essay: What Is Important In History?

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An academic eavesdropper, bugging college classrooms, would hear endlessly repeated the lecturer’s phrase “a matter of the utmost importance is …” The conclusion of the sentence, accompanied by a squeak of chalk, might be almost anything: “the Occasional Conformity Act of 1711,” or “the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713,” or “the Molasses Act of 1733.” The cultural spy would observe the forward quarter of the class eagerly noting down what sounds like an examination question of the utmost importance, while the rearward three quarters, asprawl and aslump, indicate in every limb that the matter is of no importance at all. The teacher is mistaken, or possibly lying. If his pronouncement were of actual importance, his hearers would rouse, gape, cry approval, or protest. The teacher should properly qualify his statement to read, “A matter of the utmost importance to me personally is this or that,” or, “A matter of the utmost importance to those who wish to get a good grade in the course is…” The teacher might in his gloomier moments amplify his reservations; he might ask himself what, if anything, is important in history.

It would seem that we have a simple and incontrovertible means of recognizing the important: it is interesting. But historians have been impelled to introduce a contrary principle. Honoring patient industry, they praise the researcher who has read through the English Court of Chancery records, or a mountain of French provincial archives, or the ledgers of a thousand early ironmongers in Oklahoma. This is splendid, of course; the researchers deserve all the praise they get, and more. However, they are applauded not because their work is interesting but because it is uninteresting. They are rewarded for their endurance in the study of the insignificant. Let us give them a great big hand instead of reading the massive volumes that result from their labors.

The exaltation of the unimportant is promoted by the value system of college teaching. The historian is pulled and pushed into publication. He is pulled by his desire to give the scholarly world something new, or something old that has been forgotten, even though justly forgotten. He longs to resurrect a skeleton and clack its bones together until he lets go and it relapses into its comfortable grave. At the same time, the historian is pushed by the academic demand that he publish for promotion, for the attainment of Tenure, that blissful state in which he need never again publish anything. So, until Tenure enfolds him, and sometimes after, he publishes.

In a recent issue of the American Historical Review I count critical reviews of 232 books and noncritical notices of 270 more. I do not number microfilms and the list of learned periodical articles, which outrun my ability to count. Many of these studies look interesting to me; I am sure that all of them are interesting, and hence important, to some subscribers to the Review. Long-felt wants are no doubt filled by Thucydides and the Politics of Bipolarity, by The Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church, by Ancient Petitions Relating to Northumberland, by English Land Measuring to 1800, by Struktur und Funktion der “KPD-Opposition” (KPO). But these are specialized importances; I am concerned rather with Importance in the large sense, Importance for the nonunprofessional reader, who has the blessed privilege of stopping when he is bored.

If one examines a set of current historical textbooks, one sees that their authors agree pretty closely on what is important. In medieval history, for instance, ample space is always allotted to feudalism. It must be defined, analyzed, distinguished from the manorial system, and pursued through periods of dominance and decline. The student must be thoroughly instructed on feudal land tenure in various countries and on the forces at work to transform it into other systems of landholding. Again, the investiture controversy bulks large in every history of the Middle Ages. At issue was the question whether the pope or a monarch should invest a new bishop with his ring and crosier, symbols of his office. Again, or again again, every medieval history dwells at length on nominalism versus realism. Though of course you remember nominalism and realism, I may remind some less instructed reader of this essay that there are two attitudes toward universal, or generalized ideal classes. “The automobile” is a universal, whereas “my automobile” is a particular. The realists maintained that a universal is a reality, existing perfectly in God’s mind. Not so, said the nominalists; universals are merely names, linguistic conveniences.

These three phenomena, or manifestations, or concretions—feudalism, the investiture controversy, the quarrel of universal—are all clearly important. In their own times they influenced men’s lives and sometimes hastened their deaths. To some degree they have carried over into our own habits of thought. They are interesting—or at least interesting to those who are interested in this kind of thing.

But is their importance not perhaps overdone? Each of these subjects has produced a vast body of learned literature, filled with subtle argument, passion, and vituperation. One may wonder if the mass of commentary has not exalted the subjects above their intrinsic worth. One may wonder if, in modern parlance, there is not too much feedback in their circuits. One may even wonder if historical importance may not be defined as that which historians have liked to argue about.