Monday, August 29, 2016

On the other hand, it's not NOT political history.

The history social webs are all abuzz today about the recent op-ed in the New York Times, asking the question "Why did we stop teaching political history?" And while I'm sure others will write about this (Tenured Radical is already on it, for example), I'm going to focus on how this op-ed helps to illustrate one of my pet peeves (and they are legion) in the field of English usage: this is the correct example of what's meant by "begging the question."

The phrase "begging the question" is most commonly used incorrectly: "Candidate X's sudden shift in position on a key issue begs the question of whether s/he ever actually intended to follow through with the original position." Here, it means "raises the question." In fact, it's used so much more often this way than the correct way (see below), that descriptivists/living language proponents might be justified in saying that this is now a fully correct use of the phrase.

But the phrase, in its original sense, is an a priori assumption, a trick to claim as a fundamental proposition the thing that is to be proven. And in that sense, the op-ed in question is a beautiful demonstration of this fallacy: "Why did X happen," when he has not proven that X did happen.

To put it more simply: the answer is that we haven't stopped teaching political history.

What have we stopped (or at least radically pulled back on) teaching and researching? Political history divorced from social, cultural, religious, economic, environmental, global, gender histories. Currently practicing historians realize that our fields were illusions that the boundaries were fuzzy, and that that was, actually, a good thing. Our courses (and research) may not be labeled "political history" because we are looking at the productive spaces where politics collides with race, or environment, or gender, or globalism, or, or, or.

illustrative anecdote: I am a medievalist who teaches a course on the crusades. I introduce the big outline of events in the first couple weeks, and then we move into theme weeks: gender and crusading, theologies of Just War; images of the Other; crusade and colonization. I explain to them on the first day that "this is not a military history course." And every time, a few pair of shoulders sag. But then I explain to them that it's not not military history. It's just that we're not doing 15 weeks of battles and generals and comparative trebuchets. The military dimension is present, but it doesn't operate in isolation.

And I guess that's what I'd tell the authors of this piece: that a job ad or research trajectory or course description might not be "political history"... but it's not not political history. And if the political is now infused with everything, then the flip side of that coin is that most other topics can no longer pretend to exist in isolation from the political.

All better now?


heu mihi said...

HEAR HEAR! (About the begging the question thing. And the other things, too.)

Susan said...

Yes, but we knew that. They clearly don't.

Belle said...

And there ARE dinosaurs out there who *do* teach politics in history as divorced from its broader context. Unfortunately.

undine said...

"Beg the question"used incorrectly drives me nuts.