In the Middle of Things

I’ve been puzzling for about a week now about what first entry I would write for this blog. I acquired the domain name afewgoodpens.com well over a year ago, just after finishing an introductory web design class I took through Empire State College – and feeling all giddy about the possibility of designing and maintaining my own site. The giddiness faded after a while, when I realized there was no way I’d be able to create and keep up with a full-fledged site. I kept the domain name anyway (because I liked it and it meant something to me), cranked up this WordPress site, and just recently got around to playing with it some. I still have a lot of work still to do to customize these pages the way I want (the banner pic’s pretty nice, eh?), but more on that in another post.

What cranked me up to write this entry tonight was this e-mail message I received from the Humanities and Social Sciences Network’s Intellectual History list (http://www.h-net.org/~ideas/). I subscribe to about a dozen H-net lists, but read only occasionally and seldom respond – simply because work and my classes leave me very little time to write the kind of thoughtful responses with attentive follow-up that lists of that caliber deserve.

Nevertheless, this message from Tim Lacy decrying the decline of intellectual history as a distinct and independent discipline got my attention, and I’ve read it several times. He has published the full text of the e-mail on his blog, here:

U.S. Intellectual History: A Call To Action

And he has a related post here:

Follow-Up On The “Call To Action”

As brief background, let me just say that I returned to school about five years ago, as an adult student who already had a full-time career, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in historical studies. I have nine classes to go – including one called Science and Technology in Western Culture that starts in two days – at which point I intend to continue in a master’s program. Over the past year, my classes have started becoming more advanced; my last three were intellectual history classes: one on American intellectual history, one on American modernism, and one on historiography. I read about twenty books for the three classes, and the classes exposed me for the first time in my life to Benedict Anderson, David Noble, George Mosse, Matthew Frye Jacobsen, and Jackson Lears. Along with the historiography class, reading these amazing writers has given me at least some beginning grasp of the intellectual issues historians face when trying to make sense of the interactions between history, society, culture, politics, economics, and philosophy. The ability of these writers to cross disciplines and integrate them into a coherent narrative kept me up late many nights, wide-eyed no matter how tired I was, marveling at their skills.

It is in that sense that Tim’s posts caught my eye. I wondered – especially while taking the historiography class – what was the current state of intellectual history. Taking a look at that was way beyond the scope of an undergraduate class, so I didn’t really pursue it – other than to “back-pocket” my thoughts for another time. The narrative that the classes provided me with, however, suggested that intellectual history was probably in something of a deconstruction period – where it was breaking down to a lower level of detail, disintegrating somewhat, presumably (at least in the theories buzzing around in my head) to be reformed and reintegrated in a higher, more abstract form over the next generation or so.

Tim’s posts seem to confirm the deconstruction phase; though, of course, that’s only one source. And without further study it’s impossible to determine if that deconstruction is temporary (as I optimistically want to believe it is), or a more general reflection of American anti-intellectualism that Tim concerns himself with in the linked posts and several other posts on his blog. Intellectual trends take place and change over such long periods of time, it may not be possible to even get a good fix on the current state. We’re right in the middle of it; yet being right in the middle of things – and feeling a certain discontent over what we see around us – is often what we need to spur us into action.

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