On "Is History History?"
To the Editor:
I believe AHA president James H. Sweet’s thoughts in “Is History History?” (September 2022) to be simultaneously deep, partially mistaken, and risky.
They are deep because he, quite rightly, says the study of history should be more than just the deployment of data points for the political exigencies of the moment—that we should “interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.” He cites The 1619 Project and its detractors as examples, but we could equally point to other recent work (in my own field, on the history of race in the Middle Ages) as having a strong, but to my mind not unwarranted, presentist bias.
He is partially mistaken because the questions we ask of our sources and our interpretation thereof will always be overshadowed by our own biases. We do not present amalgamations of primary sources; we interpret, and in so doing, we always impose our own metahistorical narrative on the facts. Likewise, we write for an audience (even if a limited one of our professional colleagues), and so our ideas, no matter how “true,” or grounded in fact, gain currency only if they are also “truthy”—that is, if they reflect current pieties.
Finally, his thoughts are risky because, continuing on my second point above, he comes off as a detractor of The 1619 Project and similar initiatives and thus as against social justice. In the neoliberal university, where utility is the primary virtue, this weakens the historical profession’s standing even more.
Tags: Letters to the Editor
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