Getting history right
Contemporary ideologies make it harder to learn from the past
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There’s a photograph I’m very fond of, taken back in 1903, of President’s Row in the Princeton cemetery. President’s Row is a section of the cemetery where the earliest presidents of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) were buried. The photograph depicts a bucolic scene of a small town cemetery.
Since 1903, Princeton, N.J., has seen a lot of changes. Wiggins and Witherspoon Streets are busy roads, and the old trees and residences are gone. Now, the massive structure of the Princeton Public Library towers over the cemetery. Standing in President’s Row, you can hear the bustle of activity in town, and it only gets quiet in the dark of the night.
In 2019, I took a picture of President’s Row from the same perspective as the 1903 photo. I show the two photographs to my students on the first day of every introductory history course I teach to illustrate the dramatic differences that the slow, steady passage of time makes to the most quotidian patterns of life. It’s a source of great fun to see the students’ faces when I transition them from the 1903 photograph to the one I took in 2019. Their faces consistently demonstrate their simultaneous senses of wonder and surprise at the changes.
One of the most basic tasks of the historian is to study change over time. Gifted writers and teachers are effective at giving history students a sense of the deep foreignness of the past. For example, on Aug. 17, the president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet, wrote a piece critiquing the practice of “presentism.” In that piece, he lamented recent trends among historians to level out the differences between the past and present. He stated that presentism “ignores the values and mores of people in their own times” and “encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past.” He specifically targeted The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, a collection of essays edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones. In that work, Jones seeks to craft a new founding narrative presenting slavery and race prejudice as essential to the American founding, rather than the classically liberal ideas reflected in the Declaration of Independence.
Sweet argued that presentism casts history as a zero-sum game between the innocent and the guilty, much like Hollywood produces films. Presentism functions as a political tool, in which the teacher selectively mines the historical record to cast the historical actors as villains versus heroes. Sweet charged that The 1619 Project was presentist in that it did not consider the foreignness of the 17th/18th century trans-Atlantic world, but cast it in terms of twenty-first-century American racial struggles. Thus, in Sweet’s words, the book “was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.”
Sweet was pilloried on social media for the piece. Two days after its publication, on Aug. 19, Sweet felt compelled to write an apology for the “harm” and “damage” he inflicted on “my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA.” Specifically, Sweet expressed his regrets for “my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism.”
How do we make sense of the past amid disorder in the present? Sweet attempted to promote honest dialogue among teachers of history. Our world cries out for honest dialogue. He sought to begin with one of the historian’s most basic tasks: to allow the past to speak on its own terms, not infuse it with the political voltage of the present. Unfortunately, the historical profession no longer seems to share this starting point. History is a discipline unlike sociology or political science. Historians are not to put particular contemporary agendas ahead of seeking the truth.
Truth-seeking must be the historian’s primary aim, but truth-seeking in history is exceedingly hard work, and we don’t always get it right. Unjust violence, race prejudice, exploitation of the vulnerable, and other crimes exist today, just as they did in the past. We are confronted with the reality of abuse and racism in blatant and specific ways through 24-hour news coverage and social media. Those evils are real. We must apply correct moral standards (which are objective) to the past and the present. But confusing the experiences of those who suffered injustice in the past with those of the present minimizes the experiences of both.
Let us not retreat into presentism in our historical study, but strive to tell the truth of the past in all its complexity. We all have a stake in this matter, whether we are writing history or just reading it. Sacrificing truth in the name of political ideology will bring forth more injustice, not less.
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