history

On Categorizing History

Recent discussions in one of my graduate seminars have me thinking about how we structure the curriculum of higher education. There’s an inherent difficulty in categorizing different histories–an interrelationship between histories that has given rise to broad meta-labels like “world history” or “transnationalism,” labels that are aware of the problems presented by categorizing history and attempt to transcend sub-divisions, but in doing so, they also set categorical expectations themselves.

We recognize “history” as a legitimate field of study, but it isn’t one that can be distilled neatly into an introductory course that covers all the basics. Selecting those basics is the process by which history becomes biased; an introductory course is curated according to someone’s perceptions of what shapes history, what part of history interests them, and those perceptions are going to be very different if someone is a cultural historian focused on feudal Japan versus a political historian looking at the rise of Marxism in Eastern Europe. This lack of continuity, a characteristic defiance of organization, makes it difficult to define history’s place in general ed.

William H. McNeill observed that in order for the field of history to survive in the common curriculum, its subject matter must hold some value en masse—must provide something fundamental in its teachings that applies not just to history itself, but to a broad spectrum of study. This line of thinking has undoubtedly helped give rise to the oft-repeated mantra that “history helps us learn from the mistakes of the past.” If that statement is true, then perhaps it doesn’t matter whether there is standardized subject matter in introductory courses, so long as whatever history is presented can teach students something about the nature of humanity.

But that doesn’t resolve the issue of broader categorization, and the same challenges in producing a gen ed-level distillation of history are also presented in constructing a broader curriculum. There’s a compulsion among academics to fit various subject matter into neat boxes, into courses that are easily labeled and understood. For a portion of the 20th century, for example, “Western Civ” was a staple of higher education. Gilbert D. Allardyce reflected that this label created an alliance of sorts between the study of U.S. history and the history of Europe. But Western Civ was, at its core, a construct of academia. It was a cherry-picking of European intellectualism and innovation at the cost of peripheral information, despite the fact that a lot of that peripheral information was integral to the development of European progression and expansion. Does a course like that serve any purpose as a core subject? At some point, academia agreed that it does not, and Western Civ more or less disappeared from the common curriculum.

The fact is that the categorization of different histories often forces a kind of dishonesty, but there’s little way around this. Sometimes this dishonesty is rooted in how nations, peoples, and cultures have historically labeled themselves. To say there is a “history of Germany,” for example, assumes that Germany as an entity has existed in consistent enough a way that we can trace its history. We cannot construct a course on the history of India, for example, without also having a well-rounded understanding of the histories of Great Britain and Pakistan. The boxing of history is difficult, in part, due to a lack of consistency in our understanding of nation and national identity, which didn’t exist in the modern sense until perhaps the late 19th century. As historians began to recognize this, we saw the rise of transnationalism—a practice of history that defies national borders, and looks at history instead as a complex web of relationships, impossible to neatly box.

Which is undoubtedly a sensible approach. Kenneth Pomeranz described the assumption that nations are logical containers of meaningful history as “methodological nationalism.” Many view it as anachronistic to define histories according to a concept of nationality or national borders if those concepts weren’t around in the era we’re discussing. At the same time, there is a demand for something to categorize history in an organized fashion, or else it becomes aimless. But what constitutes “organized” will inevitably vary across specializations, according to what is convenient to the research each historian is conducting or teaching. In recent years, for example, there has been a push-back against terms like “Anglo-Saxon” to define the early medieval period in lowland Britain because it doesn’t encapsulate the full spectrum of cultures and languages present at the time (and because the term has been misappropriated for nationalist purposes, but I’m a firm believer that academia should not have to abandon purposeful terms because someone else chooses to abuse them). Inevitably, though, to swap out one term for another will still fail to acknowledge some aspect or another of that specific history.

At the end of the day, no matter what sort of label we attempt to place on a history—whether its a broad, ideological one like “Western Civ,” or one rooted in national or ethnocultural labels like “British history,” or one that attempts to defy boundaries like “transnational history”—it is ultimately going to be more of a foggy thematic unifier than it is a definitive subject. The same can probably be said of almost any school subjects—for example, there are elements of chemistry (pun not intended) which overlap with physics, and there are aspects of biology dependent on an understanding of chemistry. Literature often straddles genres, refusing categorization.

That doesn’t mean categorization is purposeless. Yet historians are compelled to make known our awareness of categorization’s flaws through meta-labels like transnationalism or world history. Labels that purport to transcend categorization, exist in defiance of boundaries, and yet are themselves boundaries and labels in their own right—for someone will turn around and critique something defined as world history or transnationalism if it dwells too heavily on one perceived nation or group, with perhaps more scrutiny than if it had never been defined by such a broad label at all. It is inevitably going to be limiting, in one way or another, to force our subject into self-referential boxes. But with the institutionalization of any subject, it is also an inevitability that we attempt to impose structure and logic on the natural progression of complex events and political entities and identities, so that we can make sense of them. You can’t think on it too hard. Otherwise, you might end up more confused than if history had never been categorized at all.

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