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OPINION | EDITORIAL: History’s not what it used to be

September 13, 2022 at 5:08 a.m.

The American Historical Association (AHA) reports that undergraduate students at U.S. colleges stopped studying history at a faster rate than any other subject between 2008 and 2017.

It's no wonder, given the subject's current politicized state.

Historians once were trained to avoid "presentism," which, when applied to historical research, is the practice of interpreting past events in terms of modern values. As recent historical interpretations like The 1619 Project suggest, such training is no longer emphasized by all historians.

James H. Sweet, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, devoted a recent installment of his monthly AHA president's column to presentism and its potential negative impact on his chosen discipline. Bret Stephens of The New York Times and these pages recently reported on the matter.

Professor Sweet offered criticism for the approach taken by The 1619 Project, The New York Times' long-form endeavor that aims, in its own words, to "reframe the country's history" around slavery, its consequences and the contributions of Black Americans.

Two days after his column was posted, he was compelled to add an author's note apologizing for the "damage" he had caused.

In his original post, Professor Sweet wrote:

"This trend toward presentism is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don't read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues--race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism--are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn't."

Oh, but that allure is strong. Relevance, especially if it's political or cultural--and what else is there now?--is the carrot that leads the mule these days.

Professor Sweet also lamented the weaponization of history in current culture wars. Regarding 1619's depictions of slave-owning founding fathers as unpatriotic owners of forced labor camps and the subsequent rote reactions of some conservative politicians, Professor Sweet said history has been reduced to a "zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity."

It was not, he concluded, an analysis of people's ideas in their own time. Of 1619, he wrote, "As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?"

He seemed to fear that history is being massaged to fit narratives. At Elmina Castle in Ghana, once an important stop on the Atlantic slave trade, guided tours imply that the historical site was a launch point for slaves to North America. But Professor Sweet, who specializes in African history, notes that less than 1 percent of Africans who went through Elmina were sent to North America. The vast majority were shipped to Brazil and the Caribbean, he said.

This time, the devil seems to be found in the lack of details.

Furthermore, the movie "The Woman King," which depicts female warriors and their king from the old African kingdom of Dahomey fighting against the slave trade, is false, the professor notes. History records that Dahomey promoted the slave trade and grew rich off it. A highly militaristic kingdom, it would sell men, women and children captured in wars or raids to European slave traders.

"Hollywood need not adhere to historians' methods any more than journalists or tour guides, but bad history yields bad politics," he wrote.

Refusal to judge history through a contemporary lens doesn't amount to endorsement of past historical sins. And any historical account that doesn't accurately record the horrors of the slave trade, or that many of our founding fathers also were slave owners, is just as guilty of negligence.

But history massaged to further a narrative, any narrative, really isn't history at all. It seems students are starting to figure this out on their own.

Print Headline: Seeing things


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