Publication Date

December 4, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the Editor

The AHA TownhouseThis is the third draft of this column. It may be that my writer’s block has been due to the turmoil in our world, and in mine. It’s hard to write soberly when humanity is in the process of vaporizing its only home, when lawmakers are questioning diplomats about whether foreign aid can be leveraged to benefit the president personally, and when this column will be my last.

When my stepfather was on his deathbed in a hospital in Virginia, he was asked a few questions each morning, as people who are very sick often are: Do you know your name? Do you know where you are? Who is the president? It was 2013, and one day he answered the last question with “Barack Obama, and that’s a good thing, because it means my children will always have health care.” Since then I’ve wondered about how those who are dying see the world they’re leaving—is it getting better or worse?—and what my stepdad, a lifelong Republican who broke ranks to vote blue in his last years, would have thought had he passed away today.

David died thinking that good was coming. His lifetime in history, as a part of history, ended on a net positive. That’s only tragic, or ironic, if you consider it from the point of view of the rest of us, all of us, who survived him and who lived to see deep changes in the political party he was devoted to, the wildlife he cared for, and the coastal wetlands he loved. His lifetime in history was not mine, and not any of the rest of ours. Our histories aren’t over, though we might depart tomorrow—that is, before we can reasonably take our farewells with the same confidence that David did, that our children will live into a brighter future.

I’m not dying, though my farewell as editor is seasoned with confidence: in the future of Perspectives, of the Association that’s nurtured my talents for more than four years, and of the AHA staff members, present and future, who I know will plot courses for the magazine that I never dreamed of. But I worry about what’s to come for the discipline of history itself. It’s become harder over the past four years to be a historian, period. I don’t only mean the state of the academic job market, budget cuts, and the proportion of history students taught by adjuncts; I also mean the morale-sapping ridicule of humanities and social science disciplines by pundits, politicians, and too many administrators and people in STEM fields. It’s hard for me to believe the value of history needs to be articulated again and again and again—that the purpose of an education in history isn’t to gain the ability to recapitulate patriotic facts and dates—but here we are.

On the other hand, if history does teach us one thing—if it’s taught me one thing—it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. Our successes as human beings are fragile, but our failures can be too: things that get interpreted as failures for many years can look much different even further down the line. My valedictory wish is that we hold fast to our successes but also not hide our failures. The worst we can do for the future, for the historians who come after us, is to live imagining only success, or feeling only failure. Our legacies are and must be complex, though we surrender them to the living when we leave. That complexity, though, is what makes us who we are, and what makes our future ours, as long as we do live. To our future, for the future.

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