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).