Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is History Humbler Than Law?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I drove down the famous Emerald Necklace to Dedham, Massachusetts, a town square tucked away next to the strip malls on US-1 just before it intersects with I-95 on the way down to Providence.  It turns out Dedham has the only winter-friendly outdoor golf range anywhere near where I live, and I got the urge to hit golf balls.  While I was there, I took in Crazy Heart, and loved it.

IMG_0079 Dedham holds a special place in my memories, but not because I'd ever been there.  My first real scholarly excitement came from several teachers in the University of Michigan's History Department in the early 1970s - Andy Achenbaum, who was a graduate student and went on to be one of the leading historians of old age* in the United States, and one of his mentors, Kenneth Lockridge, who taught the survey course on U.S. history before 1877 (that's the end of Reconstruction).  Lockridge was one of a number of young historians doing detailed social history on early New England towns.  Lockridge's town was Dedham, founded in 1636 as a utopian community, later the county seat of Norfolk County and a commercial center, and now a quaint square overwhelmed by the highway just to the east, but nevertheless maintaining an all-year driving range.

When I got home, I flipped through Lockridge's A New England Town: The First One Hundred Years, complete with the marginalia I put there as a nineteen year old undergrad, and was struck by the subtlety of the theorizing.  What is the historian's theoretical project anyway?  One deals in a thesis, not a model.  "Interdependence." "Modernization."  One realizes that the underlying subject is inordinately complex and one is thus respectful of it and humble in the assertion of all-encompassing, unifying answers.  Lawyers and economics create models, and defend the models at all costs.  Maybe it's because they think they are scientists.

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