Is History History?

Is History History?” is the title of an essay out yesterday from the current president of the American Historical Association (AHA), James H. Sweet, who is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Before turning to the essay, let us stipulate starting out that academic history has almost fully surrendered to the worst excesses of leftism and identity politics, and the result is that the number of students majoring in history is plummeting. And the AHA is an abyss of political correctness. (For my sins I am an adjunct member of the AHA, piggy-backing on my misbegotten membership in the American Political Science Association.)

I have written at length about the problem with history elsewhere, taking as just one symptom that most biographies of major historical figures today that become best sellers are written by journalists and non-academic historians, and wondering why academic historians eschew writing old-fashioned biography any more.

Prof. Sweet appears to be a conventional academic liberal, though not perhaps a deep leftist. His major field of interest is African history, and in particular the slave trade. And yet in his AHA essay, he dissents, however gently and respectfully, from the near-universal hosannahs for The 1619 Project:

Whether or not historians believe that there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history? . . .

Yet as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. . . If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise. . .

The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. 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.

The whole essay is very much worth reading, despite his genuflections to the left that he makes throughout, no doubt intended as a measure of self protection. It didn’t work.  You can imagine how this mild bit of heresy is going down on Twitter. The mob has been summoned to pick up their pitchforks, and send denunciations for printing this “appalling” article to the council of the AHA.

Periodically I hear from parents who says they have a child interested in studying history, and can I recommend a college with a good department. After Hillsdale and one or two other places, the answer is: No, there are none. Don’t do it. Academic history is now worse than a waste of time nearly everywhere.

Cue Prof. Sweet’s apology tour (and perhaps the removal of the article) in three, two. . .

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