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Historian: Don't blame us for the mess we're in

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tags: historians



Jason Steinhauer is the director of Villanova University's Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

The world is on fire, and historians are to blame. At least, such is the line of argument in a series of recent op-eds.

The latest one appeared recently in The Economist, under the headline, "The study of history is in decline in Britain." It included among its laments that historians today are "fiddling with footnotes rather than bringing the past to light for a broader audience."

The piece mirrored Max Boot's similar article in The Washington Post a few months ago, as well as pieces in War on the Rocks and The New York Times in 2018. Each expressed nostalgia in the US and UK for a time when a select few eminent historians roamed freely within the halls of government.

These historians philosophized on the great challenges of the nation-state -- war, diplomacy, and politics -- penned best-selling books, wrote regular newspaper columns, lectured to throngs of students and attracted millions of viewers on television. The subtext of columns like this is a desire to "Make History Great Again" by returning to the days when historians played a central role in national life in both countries, studying war, peace and statecraft.

This line of argument links the decline of history as a discipline to a shift within the academy away from affairs of the state and toward studies of identities and marginalized populations. Critics characterize this shift as a form of professional suicide, which has led to lower undergraduate enrollments and increasing public irrelevance of the discipline.

Perhaps most alarmingly, all four authors contend, the disappearance of history from the public sphere has left us with abysmal ignorance, susceptible to demagoguery and ill-equipped to deal with seismic world challenges such as the potential collapse of American democracy and the dissolution of post-World War II alliances.

Perhaps most alarmingly, all four authors contend, the disappearance of history from the public sphere has left us with abysmal ignorance, susceptible to demagoguery and ill-equipped to deal with seismic world challenges such as the potential collapse of American democracy and the dissolution of post-World War II alliances.

Academic and public historians today are examining questions of war, politics and power -- but they are doing so through the frameworks of race, class, gender, labor, sexuality, identity and disability and by studying the experiences of refugees, immigrants, women, children and marginalized populations.

Historians do this not because it is the popular thing to do but because it is the ethical thing to do. The histories of the US and the UK for too long edited these populations out of the national and international story. Historians today are editing them in, offering those who might listen a fuller picture of how our nations came to be, warts and all.

Authors of articles like those in the Economist suggest that if only more colleagues pursued the lines of inquiry they found interesting -- and followed the careers of they and their mentors -- the profession would be better off. That may improve relations with a select group of policy-making elites in Washington, but it would do little to serve the national interest of the public at-large.

 

Read entire article at CNN

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