Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"Historians Enter the Fray"

At some point during my education as a historian, I came to believe that "presentism" was a professional sin. To me, this meant a few things: first, the good historian should not allow current events to influence her interpretations of the past, and second, she should be extremely circumspect in commenting on the present or the future. I soon realized the naivete of the first "rule." It is one thing to guard against anachronism, but another to imagine that we can ever escape our own context. The second "rule," I discovered, had a looser hold among scholars of law and history, thanks to the norms within legal academia. And today, in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, I'm no longer sure it's a rule at all.

The occasion for these musings is a collection of articles and initiatives that have popped up in my Twitter feed and inbox of late. Together they suggest a movement among historians to go beyond simply, say, correcting the record about Frederick Douglass to offering sharp, accessible content to the reading public:
  • Historian social media is abuzz over "How To Avoid a Post-Scholar America," a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by historians Keisha N. Blain (University of Pittsburgh) and Ibram X. Kendi (American University). "In the age of Trump," the authors write, "scholars must step out of the shadows of their libraries, their labs, and their classrooms — or risk the day when those libraries, labs, and classes will not be able to cast shadows. Today more than ever, scholars must produce scholarship for the public."
  • Going back some months, I have noticed the "syllabi" trend -- of historians circulating syllabi of scholarly texts that shed light on a current event or trend (#ImmigrationSyllabus is a recent one that comes to mind).
There has also been some push-back -- see, for example, Moshik Temkin's recent editorial in the New York Times, on why "historians shouldn't be pundits."

More examples? Feel free to chime in in the Comments. I'm sure a discussion of confederate monuments and naming controversies belongs here somewhere (and I'm not just saying that for you, Al Brophy). 


Shag from Brookline said...

I'm not a historian but appreciate the contributions mad by historians. But my eyebrows rise when I see on TV such as Newt Gingrich say "As a historian, I ...." I understand Gingrich was a history teacher back before he entered the political world in the 1980s and I have followed his political career closely beginning early in the Clinton Administration. If there is an adage "Once a historian, always a historian," Newt belies it. Maybe in confession, Newt 'fesses up on his historian creds.

I recall a recent item that the decline of history majors over recent years has post-Trump perked up significantly. If only Trump's voter base of the Forgotten had not forgotten history.

Alfred Brophy said...

Yes, Confederate monuments and the history of racial violence more generally. One thing I'm thinking about is JFK's Profiles in Courage, which deals with a lot of senators who compromised on race. We think a lot differently about a lot of his examples today than when that book was published back in the 1950s.

I think you're exactly right, Karen, that historians have largely, perhaps pretty much abandoned their caution about entering into debates about politics. While I understand those pressures (desires?), especially for historians who teach in law schools, I am increasingly concerned that we are becoming tools of contemporary politics. Isn't one of the key questions, have we lost our objectivity?

David Schorr said...

Temkin's point wasn't that historians shouldn't get involved in current debates, but that they should do it by writing history rather than making facile comparisons of the present to the past:
"Ultimately, the most important thing historians can do is to leave the analogies to the pundits, and instead provide a critical, uncomfortable account of how we arrived at our seemingly incomprehensible current moment..."
He goes on to cite C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow as a positive example of how historians should intervene in current political controversies.

(On another point, I wonder whether we don't need to distinguish anachronism that distorts the past from constructive use of today's categories and frameworks to better understand the past.)