Publication Date

December 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director


Current Events in Historical Context

When I first read Jacqueline Jones’s The Dispossessed many years ago, I was struck by a sentence that opens the second paragraph: “Poverty has a history.” Well, yes. Everything has a history.

Jim Grossman

But Jones was making a point that needs to be considered more broadly: too few people actually think about this truism, and even fewer understand why it matters.

Readers of this magazine are likely to know that it does matter.We are historians and readers of history because we know it matters. We know that no phenomena or ideas exist “outside of history,” and that serious consideration of just about any aspect of public or private life requires some sort of inquiry into the past. We know that the United States Congress ought not to repeal regulatory legislation without understanding why the regulation was created in the first place; that conversations about international migration and refugee policies might benefit from historical context regarding migration patterns, ethnic cultures, nativisms, and restrictions that have shaped the peopling of nations across the globe. We know that when politicians appeal to voters on the basis of past national virtues or shortcomings, it would be useful for voters (or at least their news sources) to actually have some notion of the context—never mind the accuracy—of that past. Indeed, family arguments, like international conflicts, are generally laced with a healthy dose of verbs in the past tense.

Our colleagues in other disciplines know this, too. Economic modeling is essentially a historical exercise, based on data gathered from what has happened in the past. We might argue that economic models—and other predictive scholarship based on anything other than theology—work best when they are grounded in contextualized data. I still vividly recall the economics dissertation on African American migration patterns whose causal explanations rested on the assumption that since racial discrimination is always present, it could be dismissed as a “constant.” Historians know not only that context always matters, but also that contexts change. When we say racism has a history, we understand that continued presence does not imply unchanging impact.

Everything has a history, including people. Doctors know this. When a new patient arrives, they first “take a history.” If they have had the benefit of a good history course, they might realize that “history” does not consist of a series of facts and dates. It includes context, process, change. Historical empathy helps us to understand how people perceive and shape context, process, and change. To understand people, one must know their histories.

Having abandoned two generations ago the notion that legitimate historical inquiry focuses mainly on high diplomacy, ideas, politics, and culture, we now tell our students that any subject can be an object of useful research. What matters is less the propriety of the topic than the acuity of the question. This means that all students, regardless of their major, can be attracted to history, as long as they have become passionate about something. Our challenge in higher education is to figure out how to connect our courses to the curiosities and passions that students bring with them or acquire on campus. This does not mean pandering. But it might suggest taking those interests seriously and seeking advice from colleagues in other disciplines as to how their students learn and think. One might ask, by way of analogy, how many physicists who have taught the iconic Physics for Poets course have ever consulted with a poet while constructing their syllabus.

Off campus, it means suggesting the relevance of history and historical thinking whenever possible. None of us has the breadth of expertise that would enable us to be “the historian in the room” in every case—or even in most cases. But all of us understand the discipline well enough to always be able to make the case for the utility of having a historian in the room. “Everything has a history” means that history is always relevant, perhaps even always essential.

This awareness does exist. Journalists with substantial audiences read and draw on historical scholarship. Historians write for popular journals, print and digital. My concern is that this might be a disproportionately elite practice, dominated by people who are called “public intellectuals.” Yes, historians are quoted in the New York Times more often than scholars in any discipline other than economics. But what about more regionally and locally centered newspapers? What about the thousands of historians who know that everything has a history, good teachers who understand how to introduce an awareness of the past to provide essential context? I know of two historians who serve on local school boards. I’m sure there are scores more. I wish there were hundreds more; we are, after all, educators, whether we offer history education in classrooms, park sites, or museums.

Instead of lamenting the decline of public intellectuals, I propose that most historians ought to be capable of functioning in public arenas, ought to be capable of at least reminding our neighbors that everything has a history. This might seem especially useful in the case of the AHA’s neighbors on Capitol Hill, but we are likely to be more effective in the long run by thinking more broadly, in whichever Springfield, Columbus, or Albany we might live and work.

In the spirit of 21st-century media, I’ve launched this Twitter hashtag: #EverythingHasaHistory. I urge historians in all fields to find places to write and speak, to provide various publics with the histories essential to intelligent decision making. In 1998, Elaine Showalter’s inaugural newsletter column as president of the Modern Language Association suggested that PhD recipients in literary studies ought to be able to “write well enough to get paid for it.” Indeed. And we have the disciplinary advantage of being able to remind the public that Everything Has a History. Write it and send us the URL. We’ll link to it on the Advocacy section of our website and tweet it.

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Jim Grossman
James R. Grossman

American Historical Association