Thinking the Twentieth Century

I’ve been reading Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder this week – and finding it totally engrossing. Here’s a bit from what I read on the way in this morning (Judt’s narrating here):

In 1995, I was offered the Nef Chair of Social Thought at Chicago; after agonizing for a while, I turned it down. Looking back, I now realize that I was beginning to see myself in a different light: not just as a historian, nor even as a “public intellectual,” but rather as someone who might apply his skills and energies to a new task. I was drawn to the idea of forging an institutional forum to encourage the sort of work I admired and to bring together the sorts of people I found interesting and whom I wanted to support. This, as it seemed to me then, was more readily achieved in Manhattan than in Chicago, much less in the rarified atmosphere of Hyde Park.

New York, after all, was special. Until I moved there I had spent my entire adult life in Cambridge [England], Berkeley and Oxford: each, in its way, an isolated ivory tower. But here in New York the universities – NYU, Columbia, CUNY Graduate Center – could not pretend to separate themselves from the city. Even Columbia, gloriously isolated upon its little hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, could hardly deny that the reason most of its faculty and students were drawn there (rather than to its competitors in Princeton, New Haven or Cambridge, Mass.) was precisely its location in what was still, if perhaps anachronistically, thought of as the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

From an academic point of view, New York resembles the continental European model rather than the Anglo-American template. The most important conversations in town are not those conducted among academics behind college walls, but the broader intellectual and cultural debate exchanged across the city and taking in journalists, independent writers, artists and visitors as well as the local professoriate. Thus, at least in principle, universities are culturally and intellectually integrated into the wide conversation. In this sense at least, by staying in New York I could also remain European . . .

What I wanted to create [at NYU] did not even have a name. Above all, I was setting out to facilitate an international conversation: providing it with an institutional infrastructure and practical resources . . .

And also this:

The consequence of the impossibility of both the Whig and the moralizing approaches [to history] is that historians don’t know what they’re doing anymore. Whether that’s a bad thing is a different question. If you asked my colleagues: what is the purpose of history, or what is the nature of history, or what is history about, you would get a pretty blank stare. The difference between good historians and bad historians is that the good ones can manage without an answer to such questions, and the bad ones cannot . . .

Of course I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I find it immensely interesting – and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing intellectual history by setting it within a specific person’s experience and, in a fairly explicit sense, exploring that person’s own intellectual history.

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