Schlesinger: Scholars Ignore Political History
Modern historians are disdaining political history in favor of social, economic and ethnic history, and are wrongly overspecializing in their fields, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. '38 said in a speech last night at Harvard Law School.
Reminiscing about his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., a noted historian and champion of social and economic history, the younger Schlesinger told a crowd of more than 300 that "doctrinaire social history paradoxically runs the risk of severing history's relationship to society" and "makes history static." He said that his father would have been pleased with the predominance of social historians today, but at the same time never forgot the "indispensibility" of studying wars, politics and diplomacy.
Schlesinger's speech marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, who was the Higginson Professor of American History at Harvard for nearly thirty years. It largely discussed the senior Schlesinger's book, "New Viewpoints in American History," which was first published in 1922. The book played a large role in establishing economic and social history as legitimate fields of historical study.
Schlesinger Jr., a former Harvard professor and currently Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York, said that some social historians "disdain readaability."
He also criticized modern historians for specializing too much, saying that although "scholars nowadays confine themselves to narrow fields," his father had "rejected the theory of intensive specialization." He recalled that his father had "wandered in a variety of fields" rather than "ploughing one," and had written about such diverse topics as 18th century colonial America, 19th century urban America, modern women's history, manners, dieting and even horoscopes.
The younger Schlesinger, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and an adviser to President John F. Kennedy '42, said that his father's book, which "ranged widely over the broad expanse of American history," helped to open up new fieldsof scholarship in immigrant history and women'shistory. The book also discussed the problem ofvoter turnout, he said, adding, "We are doing asbad in recent elections as we did in 1920."
Schlesinger, the author of "Cycles of AmericanHistory," also discussed "the extreme brevity ofAmerican history," He recalled that as a youth hisfather told him of conversations with former Harvard PresidentA Lawrence Lowell, who admitted his embarassmentthat Lowell's father voted for Abraham Lincoln inthe 1860 Presidential election.
Similarly, the younger Schlesinger noted thatPresident John Tyler was born during Washington'sPresidency, and that Tyler's oldest daughter diedduring Truman's Presidency, encapsulating nearlyall of American history in two generations