The Persistence of Decline

Last Saturday I met with some friends from the Minnesota Independent Scholar’s Forum to talk about Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan.

The book is a short, well-written introduction to the many ways people use history for purposes other than understanding or getting to the truth. It parallels Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson. Both MacMillan and Anderson discuss the often contentious moments when history becomes part of nation building and community definition. People use history for many purposes and some of those purposes can be dangerous. Nazi Germany, though a bit of a hackneyed example, shows the risks of reading too much into history.

Early in the discussion someone stated that current history scholarship was much worse than the history written in the late 19th century, back then the scholars actually took part in lengthy exchanges in the journals over ideas and questions of real merit. Today we’ve declined into a bunch of postmodern doubters who don’t believe in history or the truth. I bristled silently through the whole diatribe and let it pass. But the conversation continued and I started hearing some generic arguments about how bad current history education was compared to the great teaching of the past.

This was too much, so I spoke up and pulled things back from the brink. We agreed that education was just as bad/good in the past as it is now. In the past there was too much memorizing of dull lists of dates, today there is too much feel good political correctness. (I could’ve argued the latter point about modern political correctness but I didn’t pursue it.) And then my adversary said he had been talking about scholarship not education and the conversation shifted away form the topic. Another in my long list of failed attempts to beat back the beast of declension narratives.

I don’t know why I’m so opposed to these just-so-stories about the decline of something, anything, from a golden age in the past. I felt the same way a few weeks ago when I was talking about poetry and technology. It seems like everywhere I go there is another tale of decline to listen to. I’m beginning to degenerate into quotations - “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” - attributed to Lesley P. Hartley.

I’m beginning to wonder if there is a psychological temperament at work that makes some people see decline, others see progress, and even fewer see nothing but change. I believe that I’m in the latter camp, neither a believer in ridiculous improvement nor a complainer about fabulous loss. But there is a cost to being a moderate; Aristotle may have praised the golden mean but the only thing in the middle of the road are the unwritten books of authors who didn’t have a axe to grind. I sometimes feel as though my failure to choose between decline and progress is the surest route to the rhetorical doldrums.

History is filled with sudden and gradual changes. The problem I have, and I think it may shared by MacMillan, is when the changes of history are used to make an ideological point about the present in order to advance extrahistorical arguments. The complaints about past historical scholarship I mentioned earlier were made in the service of a larger, hidden complaint about postmodernism. I would rather say that the process of writing history has changed and leave it at that.

But the demand for judgment is never ending. Changes can’t just be acknowledged as changes; they must be evaluated. Was postmodernism a beneficial change for historical scholarship? Are we better or worse off today than we were 100 years ago? The answer to that question puts me into a predicament. I can see evidence for both sides. I’d much rather have the medicine of today than the medicine of the nineteenth century. On the other hand I’d much rather have the streetcar and railroad network of 1900 than the highway mess of 2000.

I’m reluctantly willing to abandon my equanimity and read the former as an example of progress, but reading the latter as a decline raises all sorts of doubts. Perhaps it is a purely political choice: liberals see progress, conservatives see decline.

But this conclusion sticks in my craw even more than the problem I began with. Is it really all just a matter of politics? This feels more like a surrender than an explanation.