For better or for nothing, contemporary American society is in the midst of a cognitive and cultural revolution. The most striking sign of change is the decline in religiosity among young people, whether defined in terms of church membership, church attendance or belief systems.
But this revolution goes far beyond the drift towards secularization. The ways we talk about gender, race and sexuality bear the imprint of postmodern ideas about identity and power that differ markedly from those that dominated a generation ago.
There is a change in attitudes, values and moral perceptions, and an increased sensitivity to language, risk and psychological well-being, which strikes me as genuinely new.
I am old enough to have experienced a series of cognitive revolutions – fundamental shifts in outlook, discourse, and ideas. These include the post-World War II psychological and sociological revolution and the rights revolution of the 1960s. Each of these revolutions profoundly changed attitudes, mindsets and value systems. Their impact was obvious and inescapable, and could be seen in the tendency within organized religion to adopt the language of psychology and therapeutics, or the application of the terminology and concepts of sociology when speaking of families or of bureaucratic organizations, or adopting the discourse of individual rights in the way we understand the world or how we make arguments.
Academic fields of study are in and out of fashion. In my discipline, there have been surges of interest in various genres of history, followed by retreats. For a Time, Diplomatic History, Environmental History, Family History, Immigration History, Legal History, Medical History, Military History, Political History, Public History, Social History, Urban History, Women’s History, Childhood History, of religion, of sexuality, of technology taken away, dominating the profession.
But while the field never died out, it’s been quite a while since intellectual history has gotten the attention it deserves. In fact, none of the departments in which I have taught currently have a self-identified intellectual historian.
Let me take care not to be misunderstood. There is a thriving American Intellectual History Society. Scholarly journals abound, including History and Theoryand the Journal of the History of Ideas. Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor, and perhaps the most eminent of all American historians, is herself an intellectual and cultural historian. Among the most influential recent history books in United States history, Ibram X. Kendi Stamped from the startis a story of ideas.
Yet intellectual history as a stand-alone field is shrinking, and few students are introduced to more than the most superficial introduction to intellectual history. The domain’s interests are increasingly being absorbed into other sub-domains. The recent death of Leo Marx at the age of 102 seems emblematic of the end of a particular approach to American intellectual history centered on cultural symbols and collective myths.
The reasons for the marginalization of intellectual history are obvious. It is too often seen as an elitist enterprise that generally focuses on the ideas of great white men, rather than the ideas of working class, non-whites or activists.
When we talk about intellectual history, we don’t know who or what we are referring to. Is it the story of intellectuals or of scholars and other intellectuals? Is it the story of cultural movements, such as Baroque, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Transcendentalism or Victorism? Is it the history of ideas, of religious or aesthetic concepts, of cultural symbols and collective myths, of moral attitudes and beliefs, of people’s mental lives or of their styles, sensibilities and emotions?
Nor is the impact of intellectual history immediately apparent. Despite all the talk of the cultural turn in history, most historians have little interest in treating ideas as floating entities or as converging or conflicting streams of ideas. To my amazement, too rarely do we see history as driven by contrasting and conflicting ideas or values.
Yet if history is indeed the study of change, struggles and debates, then surely many of the most important cultural developments have involved shifts and disputes over values, perspectives and ideologies. . If we really want to produce students who know the culture well, who really understand that history is not simply a question of demographic, economic or political change, but a conflict of ideas and changes in cultural values, then we should ask ourselves: how can we make intellectual history relevant to today’s generation of undergraduates?
I believe one answer is to reimagine history as a succession of cognitive and cultural revolutions. Some are obvious: The scientific revolution. The humanitarian revolution that fundamentally changed attitudes to cruelty and poverty and challenged long-held defenses of slavery. The end of the 18and and early 19and liberal revolutions of the century that gave birth to new notions of nationhood, citizenship, constitutional and economic freedoms and natural rights. The Romantic Revolution, with its emphasis on subjectivity and the solitary self, the superiority of imagination and feelings over reason, the quest for the transcendent and the glorification of nature.
Of course, one should not oversimplify these revolutions by ignoring their complex roots, their contradictions, their complex evolutions or their detractors. But it is essential, in my view, to remind students that our way of seeing the world is very different from that of the past, and that we should not be surprised that our successors in turn adopt values that are different from ours.
Historians are often reluctant to use the word revolution, which implies the sudden and complete overthrow of an existing system, whether political or intellectual. After all, true revolutions are rare. The very concept of a prehistoric cognitive revolution has been challenged, for example, by paleo-archaeologists, who challenged the idea that a genetic mutation 40,000 years ago abruptly altered human behavior, producing ” flexible language, communication about third parties and collective fictions”. .” In a somewhat similar way, a number of psychologists have challenged the notion of a cognitive revolution within their discipline, involving the rejection of behaviorism and the adoption of various cognitive and constructivist theories of learning over the course of the second half of the 20and century.
Yet the word revolution nevertheless remains useful when it signals fundamental shifts in outlook, values and sensibilities.
We can endlessly debate whether all of history is, as Marx thought, the history of class struggle and changing modes of production. Or whether modern history involves the consolidation and competition between nation states or the rise of individualism. We can continually challenge the role of “great men” or accidents or long-term demographic or economic forces in driving historical change. We can debate perpetually whether Hegel was right when he asserted that history is an intelligible process involving the realization of human freedom, or whether Theodore Parker was right when he insisted that even if the arc of history is long, it leans toward justice, or if Steven Pinker is right to insist that history is defined by advances in rationality, freedom, and progress.
But I can say with certainty that history is ultimately about the clash of ideas, the struggles over values, and the shifts in cognitive understandings and intellectual and moral frameworks.
So wouldn’t it make sense to teach history, especially at the introductory level, in more general terms: as what it is: a series of paradigm shifts, punctuated balances and, yes, cognitive revolutions?
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.