The president of the American Historical Association, James H. Sweet, an historian of Africa, recently wrote a column warning his fellow academic historians about the dangers of “presentism” in studying the past. Specifically, he worried that if current identity politics defined history, then students were better off studying sociology, political science or ethnic studies. He further noted the decline of graduate history students obtaining their doctorates in pre-1800 topics while the number granted doctorates in the post-1800 period increased.
Sweet’s comments, aimed at the historical profession, have become another battle in the culture wars. The latest warrior is Dominic Green, who holds a doctorate in comparative history from Brandeis University. In the “Unmaking of American History,” which appeared in The Tampa Bay Times’ Perspective section on Sunday, Green writes, “When the purpose of history changes from knowledge of the past to political power in the present and future, historians become mere propagandists.” Apparently Green, an outspoken political conservative, has disregarded his own words of caution by speaking out harshly against President Joe Biden and warmly defending former President Donald Trump.
This is not a new controversy, as historians and writers have long debated the questions raised by Professor Sweet. (Read his original essay and his accompanying editor’s note at bit.ly/3CGgzLu.) Many are familiar with the words of the Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” or those of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This debate will surely continue as long as we live in the present and consider the past as relevant.
Critics like Green question the appropriateness of making moral judgments about the past using contemporary standards. They are correct in emphasizing that people and societies must be understood in bygone days according to their own values. Yet this is not so simple. There may have been options that were available to people in the past that they either ignored or rejected.
For example, with respect to slavery and race, historians, influenced by the present, have uncovered new data by raising new questions about racial issues. They have discovered, for instance, points of view and behavior among the enslaved that contradict older histories told primarily from the perspective of slaveholders. In addition to the various forms of resistance embraced by enslaved peoples, opponents of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, including Quakers and abolitionists, objected on moral grounds to the enslavement of Africans.
Blacks and whites, women and men, continued to challenge racial inequality before, during, and following the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. Before the 1960s, these dissenters were generally excluded from history books, some were even considered mentally deranged. As historians of African Americans, women, workers, as well as new perspectives on law, politics, and structural racism gained growing acceptance, their “presentism” enriched rather than diminished our understanding of the past. Dominic Green, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other conservatives have criticized such historical revisionism as “wokeness,” but they are guilty of wielding their political concerns and aspirations in the present to shape their own versions of the past.
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Furthermore, the trend in choosing doctoral topics in post-1800 history has been in motion for a long time. In 1968, I chose my dissertation topic on the expansion of Black voting rights, 1944-1965. Nothing could have been more contemporary. I was not the only one in my cohort who chose such a current topic. Admittedly, I was influenced by the then current civil rights movement to study Black activists and white anti-racists who had been largely ignored by earlier scholars.
Studying the recent past gave me and others access to a greater number of printed and manuscript sources that were still preserved and available in contrast to those who study the period before 1800. This abundance of sources, fewer of which survive the further back you go in history, made it possible to present a fuller story of the times. So-called presentism necessarily influences the study of history. What we consider relevant in the present allows us to ask different questions of the past whether it’s in the 20th or 15th centuries.
Critics of presentism suggest that history is static and immaculate, that it is to be revered as the will of divine progress. However, there is no historical bible of literal truth. Academic historians interpret the past based on professional standards — the availability of sources, transparency in how they use them, making reasonable arguments based on reliable evidence, and yes, presentism. This is no less true for historians in the 21st century as it was for those in the 19th century. For this we do not apologize.
Steven F. Lawson is professor emeritus of history, Rutgers University. Among his books is “Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969.”