History as Contest

William Hogeland responds to my last post with a clarification:

What I’m really saying isn’t just that history isn’t interesting until contested. It’s that history doesn’t exist independently of contest.

I can agree with that, but perhaps it’s more useful to agree with Hogeland and then say that most of the cultural products we consider “history” are really something else, or something less. This reminds me of the last few paragraphs of a two-part article by David Greenberg in Slate:

David Lowenthal… has written about the differences between history and what the British call “heritage”: the commemorations of the past found in museums, folklore, pop culture, and the like. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, tour a battlefield, or enjoy presidential trivia, we’re not trying to probe the problems of the past—-to think hard about whether the Constitution betrayed or affirmed the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, or about the origins of the Civil War. We’re looking to reaffirm our national or ethnic identity, to venerate our ancestors, to inspire wonder, or to instill patriotism or a sense of group solidarity. This is what people are looking to do when they read books by David McCullough.

… There ought to be a place in society for both heritage and history, provided that we retain a keen sense of the difference.

The last sentence is important because that sense of difference is missing for most people, and when present it’s far from “keen.” Even professional historians have trouble drawing the line between history and heritage.

A big obstacle to building historical literacy is that kids learn heritage in school, and think that’s as far as history can take them—leading to the incentive problems laid out in Hogeland’s original piece. Then you get people who adopt an oppositional heritage as a reaction to the “overdetermined interpretations” of consensus history.