The Politics of Studying Dead White Men in Colleges and Universities

Politics is all about power and so it is not surprising there is so much emphasis on studying dead white men in colleges and universities, since it was generally white men that had the most powerful positions in society – a situation which continues today. Of course, there have been attempts to reclaim the past lives of dispossessed and oppressed peoples who may not have had the influence on society that powerful white men did, but who still made a valuable contribution to society nonetheless. Unfortunately, it is much easier to examine the actions and decisions taken by dead white men.

After all, men had more opportunities to gain an education, which obviously made it possible for them to keep a record of their lives, since they at least were literate. This was not true of all men, though, which is why it important to distinguish between the lives of the wealthy and powerful and the lives of poor, uneducated men. It can be as challenging for historians to discover more about the lives of working men as it is to find out about how women or indigenous individuals interpreted the world they lived in. Often, historians will turn to accounts of working-class life produced by privileged, middle-class men or turn to less conventional sources.

Instead of relying heavily on manuscripts, parliamentary papers and published diaries, they usually have to look further afield to delve into the lives of people without a voice. History has expanded to incorporate different frameworks, ideas and sources that have been provided by a range of disciplines. Historians have come to realise the value of examining history from below and considering the role that ordinary people had to play in their communities and wider society. Thus, instead of relying as heavily on official documents, historians have increasingly utilised a range of sources, from those provided by literature to visual sources in order to gain a more comprehensive picture of the past.

However, there are many historians who have not been so keen to embrace this more open and inclusive kind of history, preferring instead to focus on coming up with a single narrative of the past. They believe that it is possible to come to an indisputable conclusion about the past. Instead of perceiving their written work as representing a particular viewpoint they believe it is possible to establish ‘the truth’ about the past. There is no room for dissent or a range of viewpoints, which is made easier by the fact these historians tend to concentrate on sources which back up their pre-existing ideas.

Generally, this means relying on official political documents where there is little room for ambiguity. These sources tend not to give any access to the inner workings of people’s minds, but simply provide evidence of the actions that powerful white men took. Even published diaries are written with an audience in mind, since powerful men were mindful of the fact that their ideas and thoughts were to be preserved for posterity. Besides, although history is now a much broader, inclusive subject, this may not be the case in all institutions, particularly those with a reputation for shaping and creating great leaders themselves.