Presentism – is it killing history?
Controversy rages in the history profession about presentism and its effect on the interpretation of history.
James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, published an essay in which he argued that present-focused narratives of African slavery often represent “historical erasures and narrow politics.” The piece engendered a firestorm of reproach”.
Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History at Fairfield University and contends that Vladimir Putin has weaponized history to justify Russia’s “special military operation” by the
use of counterfactuals. Although often rejected as too speculative to be used in serious historical inquiry, counterfactuals offer profound insights into human psychology. As social science research has shown, speculating about the past channels a range of human emotions — especially regret and relief. When people regret the course of history, they often create fantasies in which it turns out better. When people feel relief about how history actually turned out, they produce nightmares depicting how it might have been worse.
Putin has regularly used nightmare counterfactuals to express regret about the course of 20th century Russian history. By using close call counterfactuals to explore this nightmare, Putin expressed relief for the actual course of history and valorized Russia’s contribution to it. Given these regrets about the past, Putin has predictably used “what ifs” to justify his invasions of Ukraine. Here, Putin has used predictive counterfactuals, speculating about how events might have unfolded in the future had he not undertaken immediate action in the present.
Putin is hardly the first national leader to use counterfactuals to justify his political reign. The western historical record is full of figures who behaved similarly: Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great – the list goes all the way back to Antiquity. The full story of how reimagining the past reflects attitudes about the present remains to be written. But the sooner we recognize how counterfactuals can shed light on how history is instrumentalized, the better we will be able to respond to contemporary challenges.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin writes in Review: Researching and Writing History in the Digital Age
So how should we think about history? The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche identified three kinds of history, and his analysis strikes me as still relevant today:
- Popular histories consist of tales of “great men” and landmark events that offer simplistic lessons to the present and which is little more than hero worship.
- Antiquarian history is a misguided attempt to recount the past “as it really was,” which makes no effort to understand why history might be significant, relevant or meaningful.
- Critical history interrogates, interprets and judges the past in order to free us from myths, misconceptions, delusions and false assumptions and to lay bare the historical processes that are reshaping our lives.
Author Jacqueline Burgess from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland has written that audiences of video games demand historical accuracy. She said,
Some of the most popular video game series are those that use historical settings, and research has revealed players have extremely high standards when it comes to the accuracy of the history presented….players expect to see due diligence done when it comes to reflecting real-life historical facts and settings.
Video game developers have embraced historical accuracy when creating their games. The audience hunger for this sort of rigorous research and details in games has created opportunity for video game developers and companies. Developers can add their use of history to their marketing.
Author’s Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan have written a history of women’s football in Australia called Never Say Die: The Hundred-Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football. In an interview Crawford said,
The very act of recording history is symbolic: it is proof that something is worth remembering, that it is valuable in and of itself. It is also a significant education tool that should be consulted as the game evolves; to look back in order to look forward.
Historian Karin Wulf is Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, and Professor of History at the College of William & Mary writes
A historian will tell you that every era, every group of people, every subject, and every last fragment of material about the past is historical. We are always living through history. We always benefit from rigorous historical research and scholarship. And while history has conventionally been written from a privileged position, and about politics, wars, and economies, most of us work from more complex situations and on a more complex combination of phenomena that could any moment be reflected in the present.
An American property with interest in history explains his interest in adaptive re-use. Texas property Lydia Clark developer likes old buildings and says
When I started investing in real estate, I gravitated toward odd properties people didn’t know what to do with, rather than conventional properties. Those tended to be properties with some history.
What appeals to you about adaptive reuse?
My theory is that historic buildings get torn down because they lose their purpose. You’ve got to preserve the essence of them but give them an economic purpose—a sustainable reason for being—so they can continue forward. Older buildings tell us a story about the people who built them and the time they were built. Most tend to have a higher level of craft than ours do now. And better materials, and more respect for resources. I’ve had varying degrees of success with them, but I find them to be more compelling.Posted 27 November 2020
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has released a Statement on a Critical and Open Examination of History which states:
Free societies demand honest, open, and critical engagement with the past. When government restricts what history professionals should study or polices how historians should interpret and teach the past, it threatens the right and the duty of Americans to understand fully the nation’s history.
We all have a responsibility to engage with that history in its full complexity. Participatory democracy requires that we recognize not just the triumphs of our past, but the struggles and injustices that continue to shape the present. As historians and history organizations, we have a responsibility to work with the public to build more accurate, more complete understandings of the nation’s history. As we research, write, teach, study, and present history, we must listen to previously neglected voices and bear witness to the wrongs of our past. We must engage the public in the process of historical inquiry, critical thinking, and evidence-based analysis, showing that history has always been an ongoing process of revision.
We can grow to shape the future only by learning from both the mistakes and successes of the past, not by erasing or ignoring what is uncomfortable or inconvenient. To move forward as individuals, families, neighborhoods, states, and as a nation, we must clearly understand our ancestors in their resilience and heroism, as well as in their confusion and failings.
And we must do it together. History can offer us a shared foundation that unites us as a nation, but only if we recognize its complexity and deal forthrightly with the legacies we have inherited. In a few years Americans will begin to commemorate our 250th anniversary as the world’s longest running democratic republic. This anniversary offers us a chance to build a shared vision of the American past that is inclusive of the full range of perspectives and forces that have shaped our present. We are confident our community is up to the enormous and important task of helping create it.
History is powerful. The rigorous, inclusive, and relevant work being done by history professionals and historical organizations across our country is essential to a thriving democracy. AASLH is committed to upholding the standards of our field and to defending the work of our colleagues across the history enterprise.
Posted 30 September 2020
Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes
To imagine the beliefs and desires of our fellow beings is fundamental to the pursuit of history. Why has this author devoted thousands of words to a subject which seems, from a modern perspective, absolutely trivial? Why did this particular theory or debate cause so much controversy? Why did it matter to them?
Yet that is the point: historians do need to ask why. Can a historian find some custom of the past alien, distasteful, or morally questionable, and perhaps feel personally glad that it has been consigned to history – and yet try to understand why it was once accepted and popular? It is not easy. We, no less than the people we study, are the product of our own time and its values and prejudices, as well as our personal experiences. The difficulty of getting inside someone else’s head can be the biggest challenge of studying history – but also its privilege and its charm. We can never fully know or imagine the recesses of another person’s mind, whether that person is our next-door neighbour or someone who lived a thousand years ago. But how far can we get if we never even try?
Peter Stearns writes for the American Historical Association on: Why Study History? He states:
History Helps Us Understand People and Societies
History Helps Us Understand Change and How the Society We Live in Came to Be
The Importance of History in Our Own Lives – (a) History well told is beautiful. (b) Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places.
History Contributes to Moral Understanding
History Provides Identity
Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship
What Skills Does a Student of History Develop? (a) The Ability to Assess Evidence. (b) The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations. (c) Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change.
History Is Useful in the World of Work (a) students of history acquire, by studying different phases of the past and different societies in the past, a broad perspective that gives them the range and flexibility required in many work situations. (b) They develop research skills, the ability to find and evaluate sources of information, and the means to identify and evaluate diverse interpretations. (c) Work in history also improves basic writing and speaking skills and is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the public and private sectors, where the capacity to identify, assess, and explain trends is essential.
Peter N. Stearns is University Professor of History at George Mason University has co-authored a book with Marcus Collins, called Why Study History? (July 2020). Stearns writes:
We try to do several things in the book. First, we very consciously combine the arguments about the skills history imparts with the really encouraging evidence about career outcomes. On the skills side we emphasize both capacities that history promotes such as writing and critical thinking, AND more distinctively historical skills such as evaluation of the phenomenon of change. The book also deals with history’s contributions to citizenship and public understanding, which must not be forgotten amid utilitarianism.
Historian and media presenter Julia Baird writes
History is not just a set of facts but a series of questions, a mode of inquiry that seeks to comprehend and put flesh on dates, events and places, to understand and include all possible perspectives, all while knowing that, until about 50 years ago, history was almost solely written by white men, about white men.
This history was comprised of flawed, incomplete and often deceptive stories that not only excluded vital records, but were frequently used for propaganda purposes, and the buffering of myths like: all war is good, mighty and noble, if somewhat sad; the expansion of empire was jolly impressive; all important people sat in parliament or courts; and women and non-white people have not done particularly much of note for millennia.
Charlotte Lydia Riley is a historian of contemporary Britain at the University of Southampton and writes:
Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by “rewriting history”. This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew. Despite what Leopold von Ranke – one of the pioneers of modern historical research – said, history is not only about finding out “how it actually happened”, but also about how we think about the past and our relationship to it. The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present.
The other important thing to hold on to in this debate is that statues do not do a particularly effective job of documenting the past or educating people about it. Much has been written recently about British “imperial nostalgia”, and the idea that as a nation we yearn for the empire that, for many of us, ended before we were born. But this country’s relationship to its imperial history is built more on erasure and forgetting than on remembering – it is a series of silences from the past.
English historian Annabel Abbs says that often historical fiction ‘makes a better job of the truth’. In her first novel the Joyce Girl she tells the hidden story of Lucia Joyce, a dancer who lived in 1920s Paris and happened to be the daughter of novelist James Joyce. She says:
Writers exploring lost voices, or restoring marginalised voices, have to be capable of shedding the weight of historical precision. Fiction provides, uniquely, the chance to view major events and significant personalities through the eyes of a narrator displaced from history. It gives a voice to the dispossessed, the disempowered and the suppressed: women, the poor and illiterate, people of colour. When centre-stage is occupied by someone with a different viewpoint, the reader experiences history differently, perhaps in a more complex and nuanced way. Few sources are genuinely independent, memory is notoriously fickle, and all facts are open to interpretation.
John Fea (Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Penn., USA) writes
Historians’ work revolves around building a context for knowledge out of disparate documents and sources, and demands revising and reframing knowledge in light of new discovery. Odd as it may seem, the skill of building knowledge from an archive of old documents is the same skill of sorting the flood of electronic information.
An encounter with the past in all of its fullness teaches us empathy, humility, and selflessness. We learn to remove ourselves from our present context in order to encounter the culture and beliefs of others who live in this “foreign country.” Sometimes the people we meet in the past may appear strange when compared with our present sensibilities. Yet the discipline of history requires that we understand them on their own terms, not ours.
Olivia Waxman writes
After all, history shows that many great inventions have come out of desperate times. As [Alondra] Nelson [President of The Social Science Research Council] puts it, the current [Covid-19] crisis is one of those “moments of reckoning for us as a society to think about how we want to live and live better together.”
Laura Redford has a PhD in history from UCLA (USA) and states that history is not about the memorization of dates and other facts. History is
an exploration of how and why things occurred the way they did. It is an investigation into the conditions, or context, in which people made decisions. Nothing in history was inevitable. History is the product of people’s choices. Sometimes those choices expanded or contracted paths available to them or to other people.
George Washington University History Professor Jennifer Wells Discusses How Her Study of Law Has Informed her Career in History. She says:
Having an understanding then of history and how people thought about a particular subject is vitally important for resolving issues in our current world.
Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian History at Huron University College and examines in an OpEd ‘History’s Reputation Problem’ the view of some that historians have deserted their professional posts and differences in use of the past – interpretation/utilitarian –
All of these historians remind us that, to be relevant, history must be much more than a chronicle of military battles, national histories and politics.
James Ottavio Castagnera, formerly legal counsel for academic affairs at Rider University (USA), has investigated the life of Leo “Butch” Armbruster’s, his grandfather and Civil War veteran.
‘What does it matter?’
The reason I think it matters…is the disruptive moment in which each of us, and our nation, find ourselves. If we are going to raise our eyes from the abyss, gaze across it and acknowledge our fellow Americans, I believe we must first look to ourselves. What are our personal stories that teach us that the American democracy is greater than our transient differences?
I am convinced that Churchill could not have faced the existential threat of the Third Reich and rallied his nation had he lacked his appreciation of British history and the place of his family tree in that history.
I believe each of us is well advised to tear ourselves away from the ephemeral distractions of the social media and presidential tweets and TV’s talking heads, and take a little time to recall those ancestors who contributed to making each of us an American.
Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of “Fundamentalist U.” and “The Other School Reformers“. He says there is a need to understand history in the push to impeach President Trump:
History is crucial in our tumultuous moment. But to make a difference and shape our debates, trained historians must contribute a particular kind of historical thinking — one based in fact, evidence and painstaking research. In the big picture… the historians make the better case.
University of Michigan-Dearborn historian Anna Müller says that:
In many respects, I think the historians’ trade provides foundational skills in analyzing and understanding the world around us: the significance of changing context, a complex set of factors that define individuals and their positions in society.
Anthropologist says that new advances in DNA research are revealing new opportunities to study the past and raising a host of questions.
While this raising lots of hopes, she says:
Although new partnerships among archaeologists and scientific specialists are not always tension-free, there is growing consensus that studying the past means reaching across fields.
Efforts to make archaeology and museums more equitable and engage indigenous research partners are gaining momentum as archaeologists consider whose past is being revealed. Telling the human story requires a community of voices to do things right.
As new methods enable profound insight into humanity’s shared history, a challenge is to ensure that these insights are relevant and beneficial in the present and future.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Filmmaker Rachel Perkins observes in her 2019 Boyer Lecture The End of Silence
We cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us. The past has made us. We are its inheritors, for better or worse, and this is now our time.
The past has made us. We are its inheritors, for betters or worse and this is now our time.
Perkins quotes distinguished poet and stateswoman, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, when she wrote:
Let no-one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within.
Historian Fernande Raine asks……………
Why History is Good For You
…history gives people power. It gives you the power of belonging, by helping you grow roots that go deep into the rich soil of time where they tap into values and traditions that feed your soul.
Why does history matter?
YouTube Andrea Eidinger
This is best summed by Canadian historian Andrea Eidinger who was a keynote speaker at the 10th Canada’s History Forum at a symposium Making History Relevant in 2017.
Andrea Eidinger in a nutshell
Some of the key words in history are: past; present; future; people, stories; understand; learn; study; know; better.
For Andrea history is deeply personal. She maintains that history is to better know and understand the past, the present and the future by learning and studying the stories of people.
She maintains that history makes us who we are. and how we remember history is important.
History is not an abstract concept or a dead subject. It is complicated, messy, contradictory and part of the everyday experience as we move through a world that is shaped by history. History is as much what we remember, forget or invent.
History is personal. It is a web of relationships over time and place which determine how we see the world.
Andrea teaches from a social history perspective and emphasizes the stories and experiences of people. Students find it easier to relate to the past if it is alive and not dead.
It is important for historians to challenge the dominant narrative and shine some light on invisible or forgotten histories. Historians should encourage open and honest discussion about stories. They should help marginalized communities and raise their stories and in doing so make the world a better place.
The purpose of history is to understand the present and make the world a better place in the future. We cannot change the past but we can help build a better future by rethinking the stories that we retell.
Historian … Naomi Malone states to the question:
Why is history important today?
History is vitally important because it gives us a basis from which to resolve current issues. Evidence from the past helps us to understand societal change, how the Australian community came to be what it is today and how to best live in the future.
Blog post ‘Five minutes with Naomi Malone’, PHA (NSW & ACT), 15 March 2018. Online @ http://www.phansw.org.au/five-minutes-with-naomi-malone/
Historian … Kelly Lytle Hernández writes radical history and says:
“History is a narrative of the past. It is based upon the sources that we regard as relevant or that we can find,” she says.
“Where we come from matters deeply, and it shapes the present,” Lytle Hernández says. “And how we understand that past, can shape our future.”
On the debate of whether history can be rewritten Hernández says:
I think there’s something, everything, good about reframing, and the dance of history, and the debate of history and where our present comes from. And that we should always engage in that debate rather than invest in a objective truth of the past.
And what we’re talking about here is a power struggle, about the well-known phrase that “the winners are the ones who get to write history.” Well, we’re talking about developing newly empowered communities, new winners, and so we’re beginning to rewrite our own stories.
My work and the work of many others is very much invested in telling the stories of communities that have been marginalized, that have been caged up, that have been locked out, that have been enslaved, and bringing our story, and our experience, to the center of the American narrative and helping us to change the American future with those stories.