The historian glut

April 13, 1994|By Russell Baker

HISTORY is constantly being revised these days. It's because there is a glut of historians. Revising history is the only way to keep them busy.

The historian glut results from the government's Vietnam War policy of granting draft deferments for staying in college. Young men who would happily have left the campus and gone into honest work were naturally tempted to stay on, and on, and on.

This required them to study something. They studied history. What do you study, after all, when you face a long sentence to college, but lack a head for science or mathematics, go to sleep the instant somebody says "economics," aren't built for professional sports, were never any good at Latin or French, and find out they aren't giving Ph.D.'s for daydreaming?

You study history.

Sure, first you think you'll study literature. It would be swell, you think, to sit around sewing leather elbow patches on your tweeds and reading Spenserian sonnets, metaphysical poets, Alexandrine couplets. It sounds perfect. Imagine wowing the engineering students by casually tossing off phrases from Milton.

". . . in Heaven yclept Euphrosyne . . ."

". . . filled her with thee, a goddess fair, so buxom, blithe and debonair . . ."

Sounds perfect, but why do you fall into deep coma three minutes after plunging into the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Because literature is not vital, that's why. Not vital for a turbulent age like the age that is forcing you to stay in college forever when, given your druthers, you'd like to be out in the great national hurly-burly, working as an honest shoemaker, or driving a cab and meeting such fascinating people, or . . .

Well, not vital in a violent age. History is to blame for your fate. You are a victim of history. It's only natural that having got literature out of your system you will, first, want to study history and, then, take your revenge on history.

Somebody has to pay for the mess history has made of life. Why not take it out on the historians who wrote it, show they were all wrong about practically everything and, if they hadn't been, the world wouldn't be in the mess it's in today.

Ordinarily a country manages to get by with 10 or 12 historians per generation. With the historian explosion created by Vietnam, however, thousands were suddenly coming down the pipeline.

How could they be kept busy? Newspaper editors could print only a limited number of letters correcting foolish reporters' errors about Benedict Arnold and Mary, Queen of Scots.

With the Vietnam War over, students no longer needed to study history; college therefore no longer needed history professors in boxcar lots. The obvious solution for excess historians: revising the history they had been taught.

Now they are going at it with gusto. No reputation is safe anymore. Not even Adolf Hitler's. Scarcely a day passes now without some re-examiner of the past announcing that Hitler wasn't such a bad chap after all. That he probably didn't even know people were being exterminated, poor misunderstood guy.

Mussolini's reputation is bound to be revised upward now that the revival of fascist politics in Italy invites the attention of historians desperate for something to revise.

Thomas Jefferson has been revised so far down that I recently read a newspaper columnist -- a newspaper columnist! -- asserting her own moral superiority to him. Even the once-sainted Abraham Lincoln can no longer be spoken of admiringly without issuance of the prefatory apology:

"I realize of course that he was a racist."

The trend in history, they say, is to dwell on the social developments of the past, a sort of how-they-lived story of humanity's miserable passage up the geologic clock. This of course revises the old idea of what history is. Historians like Macaulay, Trevelyan and Prescott made history an entertaining romp down the years, starring characters of the sort who fascinated people in the movies.

History is always bound to be wrong, of course, including the revised versions. This being so, who would give up Prescott's Hernando Cortez, that Spanish Errol Flynn swashbuckler, for the modern historian's study of the diet of roof thatchers in 1750?

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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