Historiography is the study of changing historical interpretations, shifting emphases, and different research methodologies. It is a valuable tool in helping the average student to interpret assumptions made by historians. There are six schools of historical thought, divided into two groups: Domestic and Foreign Policy. The first three are in the domestic school: The Progressives, The Consensus Historians, and The New Left. The foreign policy group consists of The Nationalists, The Realists, and The Radicals.
The first school of domestic historical thought is The Progressives. This school spawned around 1902 and began to fade around 1945. They are named after the progressive reformers of the early 20th century. Their major influences were urbanization and immigration and saw great importance in social sciences. They hoped for the betterment of society and believed the most effective way to accomplish this would be through liberal, democratic, and progressive ideas. They also emphasized the differences between competing classes. One of the most important periods in progressive historiography was the frontier.
The Consensus Historians are a group of domestic historians that began around 1945 and are still around to this day. They are also referred to as “neo-conservatives”. World War II and The Great Depression played a large role in bringing this group to light. They believed that there was no conflict in America and that all Americans shared similar basic ideas. There was some conflicts, but were frivolous compared to the big picture. They discarded the belief in cyclical theories that the Progressive had assembled before them.
Their main beliefs were rooted in longevity, durability, common traits, values, and culture. They believe that the nations character was what had kept it stable throughout times of hardship. They also refute the progressives stance on economic issues. They do not believe in extremist political ideologies and doubt their actual existence, nor do they believe in social classes. The biggest idea of the Consensus Historians is that of American Superiority and the “American Way”.
The third group of Domestic Historians are the New Left. This group was the offspring of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam conflict. Their main focus is in “history from the bottom up”, namely the common man and his struggles. The “New” Left felt that the “Old” Left had been restrained by Marxist philosophies and felt that such ideas were outdated. They have no reservation to “airing out dirty laundry” and believe that Americans need too look to the past to avoid similar mistakes. They also believe that America is in constant conflict and is polarized. They reject the idea of a cultural melting pot and believe in definite social classes. Their most popular areas of discussion involve civil rights, the women’s movement, reform and labor movements. They are bitter enemies with the Consensus Historians due to disputes over control of historical associations in the 1960’s.
The Nationalists are first in the Foreign Policy group. They were born at the turn of the century and are still around. The Nationalist promote great pride and love of one’s country. They believe that history should promote ideas of nationalism and patriotism. They believe that America acts as an example for the rest of the world to follow. They believe that our government and the documents that instated it (Declaration of Independence and The Constitution) has inspired people the world over. They believe that America is as good as it gets and that Americans should go out of their way to help other countries see the good fortune that we have seen. They acknowledge mistakes that America has made, but are always quick to point out correction. Sure, the Americans have tried to create a sort of empire, but they did it in a “good” way. This type of ultra positive thinking is a staple of the Nationalists.
The Realists are another group Foreign Policy historians that came out around 1945. They often criticize the great swings of foreign policy throughout the 20th century. They believe that America believes its a superior nation and that it does not have to follow the same rules as the rest of the world. The realists refute this argument and point out that America has had much of it’s success due to mere luck. They often butt heads with the Nationalists over issues of success. The realists insist that Americans had no control over many of the nations successes. Realists believe that many diplomats refuse to take a lesson from history. They also completely shut down the Nationalist’s notion that America is a special country, but agree that America sets an example for the world.
The third and final group within Foreign Policy Historians are The Radicals. The radicals came on the scene around 1965 and are also still around. They are an extension of the New Left and can also be classified as the same group. The Radicals believe that American foreign Policy is controlled by industrial and economic bigwigs who go out of their way to obtain new markets and resources. Because of this, the public is manipulated by propaganda, and led to believe that ideals and security are in danger because of outside threats. But the reality is that the threat is internal, and that the corporate world is the true enemy.
The biggest belief of this group is that the common man gets stuck fighting the rich man’s wars and the rich man reaps the benefits. They believe that the Declaration of Independence is meaningless and that the country has done a complete 180 from what it was. Their belief is that the country is now ultra-conservative, anti-progressive, and anti-revolutionary. The Radicals believe that the cure for this problem is to take power away from the corporations and help the less fortunate. A redistribution of income in the cornerstone of this plan, and such an action would make foreign domination unnecessary.
Of all the groups, I believe I best identify with the New Left and the Radicals. This is because I feel the Americans have made many mistakes steered by greed and corruption and that we should learn a lesson from history and take extreme action to correct the problems. I feel that preaching an all positive point of view of history is useless. What can future generation possibly learn from history if it points out that we have done no wrong.
Historiography is an important tool in deciphering interpretations of history. It helps one identify with a point of view that often coincides with one’s political ideology. This is incredibly helpful as it helps one to understand history. However, it is also important to explore other points of view in order to fully understand the lessons history is trying to teach us. Only by observing every point of view can we truly obtain the big picture.