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Eric Miller


In Quest of Intellectual Community

From monologue to dialogue

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"As opposed to stupid history?"

That's what a student had asked when, this past November, I told my 19th-c. U.S. survey class I was heading to New York City for an "intellectual history" conference. It was a reasonable question, reflecting understandable confusion. if intellectual history—the study of ideas, any ideas, in the flow of history—hasn't exactly disappeared amidst the profession's proliferating subfields, it's certainly been forced to go undercover. Try searching for a post in intellectual history and you'll search yourself right out of the academy.

So this conference was a spearhead of a larger effort, what one of its organizers calls a "quixotic attempt to invigorate" a once mighty field. There's nothing particularly quixotic, to academics at least, about summoning scholars to give and listen to papers on subjects of little interest to more than fifteen human beings outside of the room. But there is something very quixotic about such a conference being organized by a group of junior scholars from (mainly) second-tier institutions that nonetheless manages to attract a spectacularly high concentration of influential historians from élite institutions. To add to the novelty, the organization sponsoring the conference didn't exist even a year ago. What existed was a blog with the unadorned name "U.S. Intellectual History," itself not even five years old. Somehow the blog's architects had staged three annual conferences prior to this one.

It was the luminaries shining out from the program that attracted me—Jackson Lears (Rutgers), Pauline Meier (MIT), Eric Foner (Columbia), Dorothy Ross (Johns Hopkins), Michael Kazin (Georgetown), Daniel Rodgers (Princeton), and—it's no exaggeration to say—many others. Why were they there? Could it be that something new was emerging in history?

That's not just a cute question. In his widely debated 1988 book That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick had surveyed the landscape and declared that not only was "objectivity in crisis" but that (as he titled his last chapter) "there was no king in Israel." The (truly) quixotic Victorian attempt to turn history into science, Novick was burdened to contend, had, after one hundred years of effort, led to sophisticated scholarship but little evidence of a past rendered with the clarity and (collective) confidence science should have made possible, according to the profession's overwhelming epistemological consensus—"the idea and ideal of objectivity" being, as Novick put it, "the rock on which the venture was constituted, its continuing raison d'être."

Still, despite the serious, compelling, and fundamental critique of Novick and others, the canons and traditions of scientistic history have retained their force, as Novick, in fact, predicted they would, postmodern contentions about the limits of reason proving no match for the institutional and ideological force of the profession itself. History in the modern American vein has its own history, and it tends to rough up those who mess with it.

Not surprisingly, then, the conference featured a stimulating mixture of focused intelligence and resourceful argumentation serving the usual ends with the usual means. Scholars incisively probed links between consciousness-raising groups and revolutionary politics, between the psychological category of self-hatred and liberal cosmopolitanism, between women's higher education and secularization. Gradually a sharpened sense of our historical moment emerged, as story piled upon story—that, for instance, of the Great Books guru Mortimer Adler, who both detested the New Left and feared for a world globalized under the aegis of capitalism. Or the story of The Lonely Crowd author and "qualitative liberal" David Riesman, whose respect for the "Protestant ethic" grew as liberals went left in the 1960s. Or the illuminating revelation that the American media in nearly all of its varieties not only denounced but in effect silenced any who questioned the Allies' adoption of "obliteration bombing" as a policy during World War II.

What did it all add up to? It was most basically a tradition at play, serious play. Even liberal modernity requires earthy sites of institutionalized ritual (think panel+respondent+Q&A, or wine and cheese receptions, or "business meetings"), although the underground suite of grey classrooms we huddled within at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York could hardly be described as "earthy"—dull windowless rooms lit in florescent white and cluttered with wires, screens, and plastic chairs.

This setting did, though, set the university nicely off from The Church of Our Savior just around the corner, which a friend and I stepped into over Friday's lunch. We were stunned into silence upon discovering a massive Christ Pantocrator staring at us from the darkened apse—a reminder that traditions of any kind don't survive without judgment peering down. At this conference, the senior scholars present—some genuinely iconic—were prepared to offer it. Leo Ribuffo, a looming, laughing presence who teaches at the George Washington University, issued, in a style that somehow blended Andy Rooney and Archie Bunker, a bemused rejoinder to the panelists' assumption that the modern self deserves to be taken as seriously as modern selves themselves tend to believe. The grey room roared throughout his remarks, lit for a moment with another kind of light.

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