From the Editor

Townhouse Notes

Allison Miller, January 2016

Exterior of the AHA offices in Capitol Hill. Photo: Stephanie KingsleyI’m fairly certain that in every course I’ve taught, I led a discussion about what history is by saying “the past is a foreign country” (the opening line of a novel by L. P. Hartley). The point, of course, was to urge class members to resist assuming that the people whom we were to study were just like them. Learning to check this tendency is one of the many skills essential to historical reasoning and, more broadly, critical thinking.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking that the meaning of this truism might not be self-evident to students from day one, and might require continual reflection throughout the term.

Recent months have witnessed the revival of nativism, expressed in mainstream outlets (including presidential campaigns) as calls for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, bans on refugee resettlement, and a centralized registry for American Muslims. The diversification and internationalization of US higher education might also alter the import of foreign, depending on context and audience, particularly for students who are from populations that are constantly told that they are “not from here” and therefore “not like us.” In mixed classrooms, the inclination for some US-born students to refer to Americans of the past collectively as “we” (at least when these people were behaving in ways that appear to align with virtues of today) can be jarring to others.

Is “foreign country,” then, a universally inviting way to refer to the past today? And if it isn’t, do we cede too much to bigotry when we reconsider using the word foreign, fearing being overwhelmed by its negative connotations?

Calling the past a foreign country means something positive to me as a native-born American who’s always been curious about cultures other than my own. But foreign can have other meanings to some students, whether they associate foreignness with the decline of the United States (as I do not), or with being told that they are “un-American” (as I never have been told).

Were I teaching today, I would initiate a discussion of course members’ desires to identify with the past, including my own. Making the past different requires an open discussion of how to make it different, and this process might vary, depending on students’ ability to see themselves in the basic narrative in the first place.

I’d hope that as the conversation evolved over the semester, students would teach themselves and each other about difference across time. Ultimately, since the honest study of history is foundational to democracy, I’d hope that their perception of difference would inspire curiosity, not fear or feelings of exclusion.

—Allison Miller, editor


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