The president of the American Historical Association apologized Friday for a column he’d written on presentism. But the apology also irked some historians, who thought it was either insufficient or unnecessary.
The controversy continued over the weekend, when the AHA restricted its Twitter account to prevent “trolls,” including white nationalist Richard Spencer, from commenting further on the matter.
How It Started
Here’s what happened: last week, James Sweet, Vilas-Jartz Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and AHA president, published his monthly column in Perspectives on History, an association publication. The column, titled “Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” argued that too many historians are practicing presentism, very roughly defined as interpreting the past through the lens of the present. And in so doing, Sweet said, these historians stand to make history indistinguishable from other social sciences.
Sweet defined history, done correctly, as an analysis “of people’s ideas in their own time” and the “process of change over time.”
“As the discipline has become more focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality,” Sweet wrote. “Our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations.”
He continued, “This trend toward presentism is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters?”
Historians are generally wary of presentism; it’s why many demur to comment on current events or predict future ones based on past happenings. So Sweet’s essay thus far wasn’t all that controversial. (Still, some historians argue that one way to keep history relevant is to increase engagement with the public over current events, and the AHA’s own advocacy program includes “Providing historical perspectives on contemporary issues.”)
Sweet’s examples of alleged presentism drew the most criticism.