THE ACADEMYnThe NewnObscurantismnby Nicholas DavidsonnSantayana’s commonplace observationnthat “Those who cannot remember thenpast are doomed to repeat it” is notnpopular with professional historians,nwho suffer from chronic disagreementnabout what the past means, or whethernit means anything at all. Such embarrassmentnis understandable: Since thenFirst World War, the most salient lessonsnof the past have been systematicallynobscured in the academy, for reasonsnthat are both structural and political.nThe ever-increasing specialization ofnscholarly disciplines has lead to a continuousnrefinement of knowledge in manynfields, but it also works to discourage thenlarge conceptions that are inherentlynnecessary to treat large topics.nWho profits? In the short run, clearlynthe ever more segmented guilds ofnAmericanists, Europeanists, medievalists,nand classicists. Specialization confersnauthority in proportion tonarcaneness. Lacking the empirical testsnof hard science, the study of historyndissolves into a kaleidoscope of specialties,nwhose only common feature isntheir mutual exclusivity. While knowledgenproliferates, understanding decreases.nHistorians, most of whom would donfar better to spend their time assimilatingna past fewer and fewer of themnknow well, and transmitting this distillednknowledge to their students, who desperatelynneed such background, arenunder constant pressure to demonstraten”originality.” They have respondednthrough countless publications in angrowing welter of ever more inconsequentialnjournals. Interpretive revolution,nwhich can only come from individualngenius or the convulsive pressurenof long-prepared events, is institutiona­nVITAL SIGNSnlized, trivialized, and finally vitiated. Innthe meantime, true originality, whichnconsists in discerning useful relationsnbetween apparently disparate facts, isnstructurally discouraged. A few oddballngeneralists resist the tide, but in general,nhistorians have less and less to say to thenpublic because they have less and less tonsay to each other.nThe universal refrain is fast becoming,n”It is so complex we cannot know.”nEvery obvious connection is severed:nbetween the bourgeois ethos and thenIndustrial Revolution; between thenFrench Enlightenment and the Reignnof Terror; between German anti-nSemitism and the rise of Nazism. Thenstructure of academia systematically rewardsnscholars for destroying the connectiventissue that makes knowledgenintelligible and thereby useful.nDeconstructionism is the logical endnresult of all this. As the high priests ofnintellectual disintegration, deconstructionistsnhave come to enjoy a certainnaristocratic status in academia, likenmurderers in a prison. (It is an analogynthey would relish.) Those who sacrificencontinuity to change, simplicity to complexity,nand certainty to doubt relinquishnhalf the basis for sound judgmentnand become the camp followers ofnwhatever revolution is currently innvogue. In the extreme case of thendeconstructionists, like the anarchistsnbefore them, they succumb to a parricidalnhatred of the very bases of civilization.nAcademics tend to dislike answers,nfor there is no profit in them. Theynprovide no rationale for further grants.nWorse, by making human experiencenintelligible to ordinary people, theynthreaten the hegemony of specialists,n”experts.” Such is the sociostructuralnimpulsion to moral relativism.nSociobiology, which threatens to discoverna biological basis for morality, isndemonized. Economics, ethics, andnsexuality become formless grab bags ofn”choice.” The professionals have stillnnot forgiven Schliemann for discoveringnTroy: the City of Priam was far morennncongenial as a myth.nThe destruction of limits, whethernthey are valid or not, also serves a morenspecifically political function. Extremenenvironmental determinism persists innthe social sciences years after it has beennempirically discredited, because it usefullynobscures the social imperatives thatnsocial reforms violate at the price ofncreating predictable misery. For instance,nno person with an even moderatelynopen mind can be conversant withnrecent work on fetal masculinizationnand tomboyism or on sex differentiationnin brain structure, yet still take seriouslynthe unisexist doctrine that constitutesnour current national philosophy of gender.nIronically, in light of the continuingnprogress of knowledge in many areas,nwe live today in a time of intellectualnimpoverishment, fueled by the deliberatenneglect of the obvious.nThe new obscurantism performs thensame politicized function in history as innthe behavioral sciences. If the past is tooncomplicated to grasp, if each period is sonunique that there are no general principlesnto be deduced, the way is clearednfor every fanciful social reformer andnevery hate-driven would-be revolutionarynwho comes down the pike. Thenvociferous 60’s rejection of history asn”irrelevant” rested on precisely this reasoning.nTo people dazzled by visions ofnUtopia, nothing fixed and certain is ofninterest, even if it is central to thenhuman condition. Like the Victoriansnbefore us, we live estranged from ournown advancing civilization, in an intellectualnuniverse whose attempts at wisdomnand morality are cut off from thenvery empirical sources of its knowledge.nThe modern left cannot study historynand still remain a left. In history as innbehavioral science, facts are fatal. Nonwonder “objectivity” is despised; nonwonder Ranke’s famous ideal, that historiansnshould strive to understand thenpast Wie es eigentlich war, “As it reallynwas,” is dismissed as a naive conceit, tonbe left behind with the dross of then19th century.nIt has consequently become anSEPTEMBER 1988/45n