One historian who looked ahead

Lee Benson: The historian as activist

3 minute read
Benson: His colleagues hooted.
Benson: His colleagues hooted.
The recent death notices for the Penn historian Lee Benson, who died February 10 at age 90, reminded me of the time he was nearly booed off the podium while addressing a major group in his field. The year was 1981, and his colleagues in the Organization of American Historians were riled by Benson's idea that historians should be activists.

The group's annual meeting was devoted to the "crisis in the profession," which most of the attendees defined as fewer academic appointments available, fewer students taking history courses or choosing the subject as a major, and fewer sources of grants.

But Benson saw far beyond his profession's myopic self-interest. His speech, the keynote address, was titled "Doing History as Moral Philosophy and Public Advocacy: A Practical Strategy to Lessen the Crisis in American History."

Historians as apologists

In it he argued that history (as well as the social sciences, which he knew equally well) shouldn't pretend, or even strive, to be "value-free," the reigning professional approach of the day.

By this standard, he argued, historians became apologists— "conscious or unconscious"— for the status quo. In American foreign policy, as he later put it to me, that meant effectively acquiescing in government efforts "to induce young men to go to war and kill young men of other countries."

Instead, he said, "American historians should orient and organize themselves so that in their scholarly work they again act as courageous and constructive critics of their society."

If historians do that, he added, "they are likely to regain the moral purposefulness and intellectual vitality once characteristic of the dominant group of American historians. And if they do that, they are likely to improve the state of their discipline."

Insulting his audience

I'm not sure at what point in that speech his audience began to revolt. Maybe it was when they heard him call them "a gaggle of specialists" rather than the "community of scholars" that they fancied themselves.

Maybe it was when they heard him call their accumulated knowledge "bits of information," many of them "of a degree of triviality stupefying to comprehend."

Maybe it was when he lectured them on the word knowledge— which, he said, refers not simply to facts in the head but also, according to its Middle English root, "to be able to do something." That's why, he told his profession, "knowledge is power."

Andrew Jackson reconsidered

What really annoyed the assembled scholars, I think, was Benson's tremendous credibility, which they couldn't dismiss lightly. His landmark 1961 book, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy, was one of the first studies that perceived Andrew Jackson less as a pillar of democracy and egalitarianism and more as a corporation man and white supremacist— reassessments that have stood the test of time.

Benson's approach to the study of history stands, too. He used the quantitative methods of the social sciences to show how religion and ethnicity shape party divisions.

Americans today may not care about Andrew Jackson, but half a century after its publication, the message of Benson's book still seems relevant: Political candidates who spout populist rhetoric don't necessarily support freedom and personal opportunity. And the raw edges of our current party boundaries are dominated by, among other things, religion and ethnicity.

In the last decades of his life, Benson lived out the concept that wisdom wasn't an excuse for doing nothing. He was active in the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which gets Penn students active in West Philadelphia neighborhoods. He proved to be an apologist for no cause— except the notion that people who possess knowledge, like academics, should abandon the sidelines and engage themselves in the real public issues of their times.

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