Yale Bulletin and Calendar

December 7, 2001Volume 30, Number 13

John Lewis Gaddis

Historians both oppress and
liberate the past, says Gaddis

Historians oppress the past in order to liberate it, John Lewis Gaddis argued before a gathering of graduate students, faculty and staff on Nov. 29.

Gaddis's talk was the opening lecture in this year's "In the Company of Scholars" series, sponsored by Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield.

The Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History, Gaddis is a nationally renowned expert on the Cold War. He joined the Yale faculty in 1997, after many years on the faculty of Ohio University, where he was also director of the Contemporary History Institute and director of the John and Elizabeth Baker Peace Studies Program.

The Yale historian took the title of his talk, "Seeing Like a Historian," from political scientist James C. Scott's 1998 book, "Seeing Like a State." At the beginning of his talk, Gaddis showed the audience a slide of that book's cover, which bears a photograph depicting "two apparently inexplicable right angle bends in a road built across a flat North Dakota prairie." The roads, he explained "follow township boundaries laid out on the system of six square-mile grids which the United States government imposed, not just on North Dakota but on all of the American Midwest, when it surveyed that territory during the 19th century."

In order to think about what happened in the past, said Gaddis, historians must also impose a structure on it. That process is a form of "oppression," he said. By "mapping" or "laying a grid" on the past, "historians impose themselves upon the past just as effectively -- but also as suffocatingly -- as states do upon the territories they seek to control. We make the past legible, but in doing so we lock it up in a prison from which there's neither escape nor ransom nor appeal.

"That's the dark side," he said, "but fortunately it's not the only side. For the historian who oppresses the past is also at the same time liberating the past, in much the same way that states, however much they may impose themselves on landscapes, still make it possible for most of us to live comfortably within them most of the time."

Historians, Gaddis reasoned, "liberate their subjects from the prospect of being forgotten. ... Historians perform that commemorative function for the great but dead: for however much we may imprison them within a particular representation, we do at least free them from oblivion. They become the grateful dead," he quipped.

To the extent that historians place figures within the context of their times, argued Gaddis, "we also rescue the world that surrounded them." By analyzing the past honestly, historians liberate "the people and the societies we write about from tyrannies of judgment imported from other times and places," he contended.

"One of the greatest mistakes a historian can make is to confuse the passage of time with the accumulation of intelligence: to assume that we're smarter now than they were then," Gaddis told his audience. "We may have more information or better technology or easier methods of communication, but this doesn't necessarily mean that we're any more skillful at playing the cards we've been dealt."

The study of history also liberates the past from "the conviction that things could only have happened in the way that they did," argued the Yale historian, noting, "History is determined only as it happens. Nothing, apart from the passage of time itself, is inevitable. There are always choices, however unpromising these may have seemed at the time. Our responsibility as historians is as much to show that there were paths not taken as it is to explain the ones that were, and that, too, I think, is an act of liberation."

Furthermore, he said, "When historians contest interpretations of the past among themselves, they're liberating it from the possibility that there can be only a single valid explanation of what happened. ... We're showing that the meaning of history isn't fixed when the making of history -- and even the writing of history -- is finished."

Gaddis concluded his lecture by talking about the teaching of history, which he called "the single most important thing any historian has to do, whether in the classroom or in scholarly monographs or even as a television talking head."

Teaching, like history itself, involves a tension between oppression and liberation, he argued.

"We teachers are certainly oppressing our students when we expect them to show up for class, or put them through repeated drafts of their papers, or when we try to get them to see -- this is a particularly difficult problem at Yale -- that the grade of A- is not in fact likely to ruin their entire lives and might even spur them on to greater achievement. But we're also liberating our students by laying out grids, by equipping them with instruments of legibility, and by setting them ashore -- as we ultimately must -- on some uncharted continent of the mind which it will be up to them to explore."

At the same time, students can "oppress" their teachers, said Gaddis, particularly those who use bad grammar, don't show up during office hours or send "importunate e-mails in the middle of the night.

"But this sense of oppression quickly fades," he continued, "when set against the extent to which our students liberate us. They free us, first, from at least some of the ravages of aging: the privilege of professing to the perpetually young is not a bad way to try to stay that way yourself. They also release us, if they're good students and we're good teachers, from our own pomposity: to teach without being talked back to is, I think, not to teach at all. They certainly inform and eventually instruct us: the most gratifying single moment in teaching comes, for me at least, with the realization that my student now knows more about a particular subject than I do. And of course, in the end, our students liberate us from oblivion" by remembering their professors long after graduation.

Future speakers in the "In the Company of Scholars" series will be economist Robert Shiller, psychologist Marcia Johnson and biochemist Peter Moore.

-- By Gila Reinstein


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