About Corazon

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gordon Wood on "The Purpose of the Past"

When it comes to early American historians, none is better (in my opinion) than Gordon Wood. And of all the many books Wood has written, none is more forgotten (in my opinion) than The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. In this book, Wood takes an in-depth look into how historiography (the history of history) has changed over the years, and how the role of history has become less important in American culture.

The book touches on a few issues that I have discussed on my blog. For example, Wood mentions the sad fact that American students are scoring worse in history exams than they are in math or reading. Wood attributes this decline of historical "literacy" to not only a general apathy towards the topic, but a decreased emphasis in its role in several academic circles. History is often seen as a silly little Humanities topic that has little or no legitimate meaning to a post-modern world. In addition, Wood argues that the emergence of "superpower" culture warriors, who are bent on twisting history and making it their own personal sword to wield into the battle of their choosing, are actually polluting true historical inquiry to a point where mora Americans believe the pundit nonsense than the truth. For these reasons, Wood argues that the study of history is even more important today than perhaps at any other time.

The Los Angeles Times has given Wood praise for this book, calling it "a breath of fresh air." In addition, the L.A. Times stated the following:
Like a referee blowing a whistle, Wood calls for a timeout, to pause and reflect on the condition of modern historiography. (You might think of Wood as a pendulum, stopping in mid-swing to offer up pearls of modest wisdom.) The core argument he presents is that the incendiary warfare between the popularizers and academics must stop. Whether it's a bestselling Albert Einstein biography published by Simon & Schuster or an esoteric university press case study on the Watts riots using deconstructionist Jacques Derrida and structuralist Michel Foucault as gurus, the historian's mission should be the same: to communicate the past to everyday people. To Wood, an audience is essential if historians are going to influence the consciousness of our times. "We Americans have such a thin and meager sense of history that we cannot get too much of it," he writes. "What we need more than anything is a deeper and fuller sense of the historical process, a sense of where we have come from and how we have become what we are."
Barnes & Noble's website also features a lengthy review of Wood's book, which is worthy of mention here.

As most of you already know, Gordon Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution in 1997. He is considered by some to be the foremost historian of the American Revolution. Here is a link to Gordon Wood's website at Brown University.

No comments: