Publication Date

February 13, 2024

Perspectives Section

From the Editor

The AHA Townhouse

There’s a lot of outrage going around these days. With all the shouting heads on cable news and algorithmically encouraged doomscrolling on social media, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. Outrage sells—or at least it gets people to pay attention long enough to click. Consequently, outraged declarations that something is a scandal beyond all precedent often seem like just a lot of hot air and are easily dismissed as irrelevant.

As those who have the pleasure of encountering me in person invariably discover, I have a fascination with irrelevant, functional semantic content. I pay a lot of attention to what people say when they declare themselves outraged, and one turn of phrase always gets my attention. With increasing frequency, it seems, politicians and the professionally angry like to invoke the judgment of history on whichever persons or groups they deem to be responsible for the outrage of the moment, perhaps because they find themselves powerless to do much else.

As historians, we know that history forgets with a much greater frequency than it judges. We know that such a declaration is divorced from how historians understand the discipline. This maps neatly onto a narrative of increasing public disengagement with the humanities in higher education and decreasing historical literacy with which the readers of this magazine assuredly are familiar. There are frequent lamentations that the history major is in decline, no one with a history degree can get a job, no one cares about the accurate depiction of the past anymore, and so on. Historians, their elbow patches stuck in their armchairs, are powerless to do anything about it, or so the story goes.

Except it’s not true that history majors are unemployable. Those concerned with the career prospects of their students might note that a history degree is a track to, among other things, the presidency of the United States. Of the 15 presidents since 1933, six (Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, both Bushes, and Biden) earned undergraduate degrees in history, and three more (Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama) earned degrees in adjacent fields (government, foreign service, and political science, respectively). Those who seek political power know the utility in studying history. Even Florida governor Ron DeSantis spent a year as a high school history teacher after earning his history degree—two facts that are omitted from his official biography, which seems slightly odd.

I digress.

In the recent past, history has been the classroom of empire and the chosen pursuit of those who seek to rule. Indeed, in the 19th-century university, what we now call the discipline of history was rebuilt for the purpose of solidifying state power in the age of empires. As Timothy Mitchell has put it, a historicizing account was “the only way, outside theology, to explain the general character of law.” The profession and practice of history was created, in part, to justify the present.

We don’t spend enough time grappling with the legacy of the origins of our discipline—or at least I wasn’t made to, and that experience seems typical—though attempts have been made, most notably in fiction. But these legacies linger. When researching, many scholars, for example, still must rely on compilations of primary sources that were designed from their inception as a nationalist project or, more directly, the archives of a nation-state. Academic historians work in departments organized around 19th-century principles and in fields delineated by the concerns of a not-as-bygone-as-we-might-hope era. And so the next time we historians roll our eyes at some pundit Whiggishly declaring that history will judge the participants in the latest thing we’re all mad at, we should also consider if we are quite as far away from all that as we wish to believe.

L. Renato Grigoli is the editor of Perspectives on History.

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