The case for historians being more engaged in public affairs, not lessRoundup
tags: historians, impeachment, public engagement
Before the House voted on impeachment, prominent historians made their case in favor of it, with some arguing that President Trump’s America is suffering from a painful rash of historical obliviousness.
But this provoked a backlash, with critics condemning the historians for not staying in their lane. As Andrew Ferguson argued in the Atlantic, what do historians know about the present? Does scholarly expertise translate to good judgment about the politics framing the impeachment? What good does it do to lecture the public about the past when the ongoing conversation is not about nuance but about political power?
Ferguson scored on one point, perhaps: Historians may be too optimistic about the role they can play in changing minds in a moment of political crisis. In the big picture, however, the historians make the better case.
History is crucial in our tumultuous moment. But to make a difference and shape our debates, trained historians must contribute a particular kind of historical thinking — one based in fact, evidence and painstaking research. It is not enough merely to call on Americans to study more history. There are plenty of other kinds of history to which Americans can, and often do, turn. But all histories are not created equal, and America’s long culture war over creationism can offer a glimmer of hope for historians trying to make a difference today.
When Charles Darwin published his evolutionary bombshell in 1859, his earliest defenders assumed that its explanatory power and intellectual elegance would soon sweep away all resistance. Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” told audiences in 1859 that all of society would immediately “turn to those views which profess to rest on a scientific basis only” as soon as the general populace heard “the facts of the case” for Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
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