Lecture Hopping: You’ve All Missed the Point!

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Lionel Trilling Seminar series: Does History Teach Any Lessons?

23 February 2006

The Rotunda, Low Library

As last stragglers filed into the Rotunda, a man in a suit informed some two-hundred fifty people, “This evening’s seminar opens vistas of thought.” Never trust man in a suit.

Gordon Wood’s lecture was a reality check. He came to tell us history’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and we abuse it. Did you think Brown’s star American History professor came all the way to Columbia to teach history lessons for an hour? Heck, no!—we’ve got Foner.

Warm and energetic, he looks twenty years younger than his seventy-two. For a friend of rare-book dust bunnies, a scholar of the revolutionary period, he is incongruously spry and impudent.

If anybody, knowing Wood’s brilliant scholarship, hoped he would inform the state of the union with revolutionary lessons, the professor’s opening statement must have been a crushing blow. “My topic tonight,” he told us, “is: are there lessons in history?”


For Wood, historians “ought not to be using history as a source of lessons.”

Barbara Tuchman, he said, was the ideal historian. Not for her Pulitzers, but for her storytelling. She captured the complexity of any situation with impartiality and sympathy. Trained as a journalist, Tuchman criticized academics for sucking history dry. Wood agreed with her that, seeking utility, the ‘historian’ will create something nobody wants to use.

Ironically, Wood declares, when academic historians abandoned instrumentalism for narrative (c. 1980), Tuchman decided in The March of Folly to perpetrate the same crimes she once prosecuted: caricaturism, speculation, dismissiveness—stupid Trojans and their goddamn horse! degenerate Britons! silly Japs! Could have done better…

Here, Professor Wood unobtrusively delivered his main argument: lessons from history misguide us. Tuchman’s book sold the British, amongst others, short. They did the best they could to restrain the American colonies, and it’s no use calling them fools for not seeing the future. It’s no use, he said, but it’s the American way; it is a peculiarity of our nation’s youth, James Polk commented, that we alone find our history in the future.

Wood then defiantly calls the American revolutionaries “obtuse.” The ignorant, he observed, take heart in self-deception, like horses wearing blinders. Learned men hesitated to revolt, perhaps contemplating Mytilene as the Founding Fathers thumbed their noses at mother England. The sagacity of the Thucydides scholars, Wood asserts, was not our saving grace. Our freedom, therefore, is owed in large part to folly.

“Can we learn lessons from the mistakes of the past?” Wood put on his mock-pensive face. “I think we can make a case against this.” He reversed the old adage: the more we learn of history, the more we repeat its errors. For example, Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s Secretary of State, ignoring the differences of the two situations, invoked Munich in his decision to invade Vietnam.

According to Wood, our simplistic ‘lessons’ make history the instrument of unpardonable sins: “anachronism,” “ruined integrity,” “subversion of the truth.” It teaches the wrong facts, and sometimes none at all. A certain well-intentioned sociologist, reproved for teaching secondary students the Native American origin of Constitutional ideas, suggested that his curriculum could be taught in elementary, but “surely not in middle school!”

The present should inspire historians, but it shouldn’t alter or filter the record. “History,” Wood declared, “deepens and complicates,” transporting us into chaos. The historian just gives us the bird’s eye vantage and oversight. Wood offered an example: Fabrice, in Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, finds himself lost at Waterloo and can’t say whether he’s fought in “a real battle,” though he (unwittingly) passes by Napoleon on the field. In the fray, we can’t know what’s happening.

A “historical sense,” Wood explains, saves us from the error of certainty, and teaches us few other lessons. We can know the “pastness” of the past, skepticism, and prudence. A historical sense tells us “things will change and continue to change, but not in ways that we may understand, or want.”

No lessons? No palm-reading, no tarot, no horoscope of history? No, that’s all, Wood concluded unhelpfully—“This kind of historical sense . . . will give us the best guide for groping our way to the future.” We can’t do better.

John Klopfer


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