Reading The Historian's Craft in the Age of Trump

I wrote this essay in the summer of 2016, and spent the ensuing year revising it. Yet I never hit publish. Partly, I felt (and feel) like an imposter; neither Bloch’s work nor WWII are within the purview of my own historical research. Additionally, I’m not sure I entirely agree with my conclusions about the role historians must play in this current moment.

However, I just read the following piece (“The Medievalist Who Fought Nazis with History”) on, and I decided to share this because I do believe that Bloch was telling us more than “the point of history [is] to have something to say about the present.” So I offer my own thoughts for debate.


Recently, I found myself reaching for my well-worn copy of Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft, a 200-page meditation on the meaning and value of history and a primer on how to do it well. The book has a tragic backstory. Marc Bloch was a French Jewish historian who was well known and respected for his scholarship on medieval and early-modern French feudal society. After Nazi troops invaded France in 1940, Bloch went underground and began to work on two manuscripts. He wrote the first, Strange Defeat, during the summer of 1940 to chronicle how and why France failed to rout the German invasion. Bloch then began writing The Historian's Craft. In late 1942, while working on the manuscript, he became active in the French Resistance. Vichy police eventually captured him in March of 1944 and he was turned over to the Gestapo for interrogation. He was tortured, imprisoned, and then murdered by a firing squad in June 1944. Bloch's colleague, historian Lucien Febvre, took up the task after the war of assembling the unfinished text into a draft for publication. 

Why did Bloch choose to write a book on historiography and methods, of all possible topics, while a war raged around him? The introduction to The Historian’s Craft provides some indication of his motives. Bloch wrote that because Western civilization “has always been extremely attentive to its past,” it was only natural that “whenever our exacting Western society, in the continuing crisis of growth, begins to doubt itself, it asks itself whether it has done well in trying to learn from the past, and whether it has learned rightly.” [i]

The Historian's Craft thus begins with a quote from Bloch's son, who as a young boy asked of his father, "Tell me, Daddy. What is the use of history?" Bloch explained that buried in this simple question posed by his child lay a deeper question, "no less that of the legitimacy of history.” [ii] From the outset, then, Bloch devoted The Historian's Craft to explaining the "usefulness" of history as an intellectual discipline devoted to understanding human lives. Bloch emphasized that “useful” history portrays people, events, and decisions in the past as complex and dynamic, the product of coincidences and contradictions just as often as of logical choices. 

Bloch emphasized, however, that "this question of use must always come second in the order of things, for, to act reasonably, it is first necessary to understand.” [iii] He believed that explanation was paramount—interpretation and judgment were by necessity secondary. "If the judgment only followed the explanation,” he wrote, “the reader could simply skip it. Unfortunately the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations.” In the context in which Bloch was writing, when the “loss of taste for explanations” had allowed European fascists to persecute Jews and other minorities whom history had judged unfavorably, Bloch’s appeal was not for objectivity. Rather, he desired for historians to write history that was so rich and penetrating that politicians could not easily flatten it for their use as evidence of a group’s defectiveness or as a justification for action against a group. Indeed, Bloch continued, “When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present, human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white.”[iv]

Bloch thus concluded the introduction to The Historian’s Craft by describing it as “the memorandum of a craftsman who has always liked to reflect over his daily task.” [v] Indeed, “reflective” perfectly describes the book. It is quiet and wise. In a time of chaos, Bloch bored down to examine the nature of history and the essential mechanics of historical research. And yet by focusing on the foundations, Bloch also challenged historians to think more broadly about the judgments they built atop it. 

Are historians to blame for the ease with which politicians flatten history? We must ask ourselves how and why history is so easily dismantled and rewritten by politicians, while our scholarship is dismissed. Have our attempts to prove our contemporary relevance led us to pass too many judgments and ironically led us to undermine our own legitimacy? 

If so, the consequent question is not whether or not to be an activist historian. I still believe the answer to that question is yes. The question is how we can be activist historians without cutting our legs out from underneath us. Bloch would be the last person to say that this means ignoring the needs and interests of the present. Rather, he urged historians to be more understanding. “Even in action,” he wrote, “we are far too prone to judge. ... A little more understanding of people would be necessary merely for guidance, in the conflicts which are unavoidable; all the more to prevent them while there is yet time.” [vi]

I think there is another reason, however, that Bloch wrote this book in the midst of the war, and it’s for the same reason that I turned to his book in the midst of this political moment. The rigorous evaluation of methodology grounds the historian in the present without effacing the infinitude of history and the constant evolution of historiography. There is an inertia created when these contradictory forces are balanced against one another, providing a moment for the scholar to pause, catch their breath, and “ask himself with a sudden qualm whether he has spent his life wisely?” [vii]

These moments of inertia are when it’s most tempting to assert our usefulness by putting judgment before explanation. Bloch urges us to look inwards at our own methodological practices. Not because it will challenge the new regime, or instantly make American society more empathetic, but because it is a balance against the loud, the chaotic. It’s a forceful assertion of the importance of reflection and humility. 


[i]Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 4-6.

[ii]Bloch, Historian’s Craft, 3-4.

[iii]Ibid., 11.

[iv]Ibid., 140.

[v]Ibid., 19.

[vi]Ibid., 143-4.

[vii]Ibid., 4.

Three Books I Recommend About: The History of Social Work

These books were written for an academic audience, but if you can cut through the theory there are many interesting stories about how professional social workers have cared for poor, unwell, and "maladjusted" Americans over the course of the twentieth century. There are many other excellent books on this topic, but these are the three that I find myself consulting most often for my own research.

1. Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career 1880-1930 (1965)

In this pioneering book, Lubove analyzed the transition of social welfare from charitable voluntarism to expert occupation by identifying how social workers adopted the three main tenets of a professional identity: specialization, bureaucratization, and the formation of an “occupational subculture.” It's a classic--every scholarly history of social work written since the '60s builds on Lubove's theory of how the profession originated.

2. Regina G. Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945 (1993)

While Lubove examined social work professionalization through a political-economic lens, in her 1993 book Regina Kunzel argued that the transition from evangelical “ladies bountiful” to scientific and objective professionals was not smooth or linear but rather a prolonged contestation of expertise and legitimacy. She also gendered Lubove’s professionalization thesis, challenging his implied conception of professionalism as inherently masculine and, conversely, femininity and women’s work as inherently not professional. Fallen Women, Problem Girls emphasized “not only that women participated in the process but that the transition itself was shaped and structured by gender.”  The tense takeover of Florence Crittenden and Salvation Army maternity homes, formerly the purview of evangelical Christian women, provided Kunzel with an excellent case study of how trained social workers sought to “improve the efficiency” of these homes as a mechanism for actually improving their own social status as scientific professionals. By identifying an occurrence of competition among females for professional authority, Kunzel revised a narrative that formerly posited that men seized legitimacy as experts and marginalized women to charitable work.

3.  Daniel Walkowitz, Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity (1999)

Published a few years later, in 1999, Daniel Walkowitz’s history of social work accepted Kunzel’s argument that professionalization was gendered but expanded her thesis to examine social workers as laborers embodying a contradictory class status—professionals without autonomy. Working With Class demonstrated that one “symbolic strateg[y]” used by social workers was to call themselves professionals—yet, as an overwhelmingly female workforce, their dependence on their male supervisors and on their wages limited their autonomy and stained their collars blue. Walkowitz argued that this contradiction, plus the rise of consumerism, began divorcing class identity from work over the course of the twentieth century and increasingly rooted it in the home. Working With Class thus attempted to fill a void perceived by Walkowitz, that historians had under-theorized class in studies of twentieth-century work. Accordingly, Walkowitz emphasized that the most interesting feature of labor over the past one-hundred years has been the struggle of “blue collar” workers to enter the middle class while recognizing that professional, “white collar” work was increasingly routinized and dependent. To demonstrate and ground these arguments, Walkowitz contrasted the public New York City Department of Welfare with an exploration of several private agencies funded by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, including the Jewish Board of Guardians, Jewish Child Care Association, and Jewish Family Services. This focus on Jewish social workers highlighted the subjectivity and intersectionality of identity and showed how race, gender, and religious commitment were fundamental to the construction of these professionals’ class identity. 

Honorable mention: This book is not a history of social work, but it does include a chapter that address social work professionalization! Elizabeth Lunbeck's The Psychiatric Persuasion (1994) detailed how psychiatrists professionalized and developed their own medical subspecialty. In her second chapter, Lunbeck discussed how psychiatrists’ and social workers’ knowledge and power problematically overlapped—they shared expertise and thus could share professional authority. Psychiatrists created a hierarchy based on gender, wherein men were authoritative medical professionals and women were, well, neither authoritative nor medical professionals. To counter the psychiatrists’ challenge, social workers attempted to become more scientific, adopting educational and licensing standards. In the 1920s, they also began doing psychotherapy casework. Unfortunately, however, women were “doubly handicapped” from gaining the “professional’s distinctive occupational authority” by both their gender and their perceived lack of scientific methods or objectivity.

Are there any other great books on this topic that you recommend? 

History in the News

I began writing this post in June, but lost steam as soon as I began my internship. While it's no longer timely, I still feel that this article is worth highlighting and hope my comments on it inspire those of you who missed it the first go-round to give it a read. I've chosen not to provide a summary of Coates' story and argument, and recommend that you look at my post after reading the article. 

In June, The Atlantic published a cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates that garnered a lot of buzz. I want to recommend that you read it not only because it's a fabulous article--richly descriptive, informative, packed with history, and with a solid argument--but also because I think it does a pretty decent job of contextualizing my own research. In particular, the sixth section entitled "Making the Second Ghetto" introduces the very historiography into which my own project seeks to intervene.

The strength of Coates' article is how effectively it describes how racial discrimination has, since World War II, been incorporated into the structure of our society--our laws, policies, and practices concerning housing, employment, and mobility. This structural discrimination has perpetuated a wealth gap between black and white Americans. "The Case for Reparations" traces how American racial discrimination outlived the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement and continues to exist today in the form of discriminatory lending programs (especially around mortgages and housing), in unequal distribution of job training and placement programs, and in the insiduous claims of pathologically unfit black parents (particularly absent fathers and single mothers).  Coates argues that until we recognize that racism continues to shape the opportunities and decisions made by black Americans, we cannot begin to close the wealth gap and mitigate persistent economic inequality.

In "Making the Second Ghetto," Coates supports his claims by referring to a historical work of the same name, which was published by Arnold Hirsch in 1983. This book is a foundational text in the scholarship on twentieth-century U.S. urban history and African American history. In brief, Hirsch argues that racist housing and redevelopment policies in postwar cities transformed segregated neighborhoods (the "first ghetto") into overcrowded, decrepit, and still segregated black "second ghettos."  Although it is already 30 years old, historians are still debating its various merits--myself included! Why? Well, primarily because many of our contemporary social problems stem from the deindustrialization and disinvestment in American cities that occurred between the 1940s and 1970s, and if we want to understand the present it helps to examine these same issues in the past. 

The Making of the Second Ghetto offered a new, snappy thesis to explain why these events unfolded--prompting a wave of studies that agreed or disagreed with Hirsch's "second ghetto" model. Hirsch changed the way historians thought about the relationship between black and white Americans in the twentieth century by reminding scholars that state policymakers made outsized contributions to the problem of segregated urban neighborhoods. Previously, historians believed that American ghettos were the inevitable result of racism and discrimination. Hirsch challenged the assumption that the "inner city" ghetto was an inevitability, and repeatedly emphasized that the consolidation of the "first ghetto" into the "second ghetto" could have been avoided, had white business interests and white homeowners not parlayed their power into legislative action and housing policies that transformed extant ghettos into even more isolated (and isolating) neighborhoods. Hirsch wrote the following in the introduction to the book:

"Indeed, the real tragedy surrounding the emergence of the modern ghetto is not that it has been inherited but that it has been periodically renewed and strengthened. Fresh decisions, not the mere acquiescence to old ones, reinforced and shaped the contemporary black metropolis”{C}

What historians later knocked Hirsch for, however, was that all of the "fresh decisions" that he focused on in Making the Second Ghetto were made by white elites and not by black residents of the "second ghetto". Much of the research since 1985, and particularly in the twenty-first century, has focused on the black grassroots activism in formal politics during this "urban crisis" of the 1960s and 1970s. The strength of "The Case for Reparations," in fact, is its focus on the activist response of the Contract Buyers League to abusive practices by white real estate speculators. Coates highlights how these aspiring homeowners organized themselves--eventually forming a group as large as 500--to shame contract sellers for their exploitation and to file lawsuits seeking repayment of funds that contract sellers extorted from these vulnerable buyers. Rather than passively acquiescing to structural racism, black urbanites reacted in a variety of ways to challenge exploitation. 

This is where my research picks up. My dissertation does not look at arguments for reparation, nor am I particularly concerned with debating against Hirsch--plenty of more advanced scholars have done a superb job of clarifying and elaborating on his theory. Rather, I am interested in grassroots activism as a response to these transformations of the postwar city (the Urban Crisis and consolidation of the "second ghetto"). Specifically, I'm curious about how urban citizens used Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) during the 1960s and '70s as sites of activism. Consequently, how did this activism reshape the JCC? My research examines how non-white (black and Latino) residents of formerly Jewish neighborhoods like Washington Heights or the Lower East Side or the Central Bronx regarded Jewish Community Centers--a space that offered them social services and recreational space but did not claim to be for them. Likewise, the dissertation studies how the Jewish residents remaining in these communities used the JCC as a place to organize to "improve" the neighborhood--whether "improvement" was a euphemism for segregation or meant accepting diversity and advocating for the inclusion of non-Jewish membership.