- The Future of History by John Lukacs
While many historians regard their discipline as a branch of the humanities, others classify themselves as social scientists. Colleges and universities also vary as to which field to place history, with some tying history departments to the humanities and others to the social and behavioral sciences. For John Lukacs, the choice is easy. After describing the origins of historical writing as “a branch of entertaining literature,” he sets out to prove that both the past and the future of the discipline are connected to the humanities rather than the social sciences (5).
Throughout The Future of History Lukacs argues that history grew from literature and is best written with literary flair. He argues that the application of the scientific method to the study of people is best left to sociologists, despite the “very American” tendency among historians like Frederick Jackson Turner and other Progressives to treat history as a social science (11). Even though the influence of these historians faded after the 1950s, “the notion that history was a social science lived on” to influence academics after the 1960s (17). One result was the emergence of social history, much of which Lukacs describes as “retrospective sociology” (18).
In its worst form, social history can be faddish and laden with jargon. Lukacs cites, for example, the emergence of quantitative history, exemplified by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s promises of a “cliometric revolution” in their famed 1974 Time on the Cross, a book which gained much attention among economists and the public at large but has been mostly scorned by historians. In addition to this “quanto-history,” Lukacs mentions psycho history, multiculturalism, and counterfactual history as regrettable fads in the field. The good news, he argues, is that most historians did not “succumb” to these trends (47). Even so, he insists that historians must remain ever vigilant to distinguish between social science and social history. In short, historians should stop trying to be scientists and return to their discipline’s literary roots to tell honest, accurate, and engaging stories about the past.
Though admittedly uncertain about what will happen to the practice of teaching history with the decrease in attention spans, shrinking interest in reading, increasing reliance on impersonal media rather than face-to-face classes, and the growth of a pictorial culture, Lukacs does offer a potentially optimistic assessment of the future of history beyond the classroom. He insists that around 1960 there arose a “wide and spreading interest in history” that continues to expand (61). He cites as evidence the large number of popular historical magazines and history programs on television, the growing number of local historical societies, and the popularity of historic preservation. Perhaps most importantly, he points to the fact that histories issued by commercial publishers have sold better than novels since 1960.
While professional historians occasionally write for the popular market, many of these commercial histories have been written by amateurs. Some amateur works are quite good, but others are produced to further specific [End Page 418] political or cultural agendas. Lukacs maintains that, whether or not they write popular histories, professional historians still have a responsibility to serve as the guardian of truth, saving the consumer from what he describes as historical “junk food” produced by amateurs who have specific agendas and who tend to bend the evidence to support their preconceived ideas rather than to let the facts lead to the truest story possible.
The best historians, the ones who will fare well in the future, are those who use their professional training in historical methodology to find the strongest evidence and best sources but write in a way that appeals not just to other historians but to the general reader as well. Unfortunately, however, as Lukacs points out, historians who write in such a way can sometimes be overlooked or even dismissed by their more academically-focused peers.
In the end, Lukacs issues a very important warning to professional historians. The bottom line is that the general public will almost certainly continue to be fascinated with the past...