At U.S. Intellectual History, Tim Lacy reflects upon the abiding significance of the field. Lacy focuses his three-part discussion on a forum that appeared earlier this year in Historically Speaking. With contributions from such historians as Daniel Wickberg, David A. Hollinger, Sarah E. Igo, and Wilfred M. McClay, the forum covered issues ranging from the usefulness of intellectual metanarratives to pedagogy:
Three of the four forum contributors support the notion that the history of ideas is as good a connecting thread as any in a survey situation. And this constitutes a nice transitional point to what I have termed “relational issues”—the next topic in my taxonomy. Igo, Wickberg, and McClay make arguments for the history of ideas as being the best common thread in a wide-ranging survey course. Igo wrote that “a capacious history of ideas…can and ought to be central to the survey” (p. 19-20). McClay notes that surveys are “a great act of triage” (I agree) that requires some affinity for a metanarrative that is “honest, coherent, and reasonably complete” (p. 21). Intellectual history helps McClay in this effort. The question then becomes whether we can have substantive metanarratives while avoiding the older, much-abused (rightly) trap of “grand narratives”? (p. 16).
Wickberg, in his final rejoinder, argues aggressively that a history-of-ideas approach is the answer for showing intellectual history’s importance in a survey setting. That approach both allows for topical flexibility and reinforces the notion that intellectuals and great thinkers are important for understanding the ebb and flow of U.S. history. Wickberg wants us to “see ideas themselves in the driver’s seat,” not just people (to avoid the elite trap) or topics, as I see it, such as politics or class or gender or race (p. 24). He also desires us to “foreground ideas” in general and understand “ideas as a force in history” (p. 22-23). By doing these things, I would say that all historians will run much less risk of parochializing history in terms of particular ideas. By foregrounding ideas we will give those on the outside a greater sense of what some mid-century thinkers called “the great conversation” about the “great ideas.” We will make history more about the liberal arts and social sciences, and less about antiquarianism or a narrow political-ideological agenda. By thinking of ideas as a “force in history,” intellectual historians can help forward the interdisciplinary cause and make the subfield popular among non-professional audiences.