Was the AHA President's Essay Just a Tempest in a Teapot?Historians in the News
tags: historiography, AHA, Presentism
On first consideration the controversy arising this month over an editorial published in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s house magazine, by the group’s president, James H. Sweet, encapsulated everything most depressing about the academic humanities now. Against the backdrop of a probably irreversible decline in history majors and an almost nonexistent job market for new history Ph.D.s, Sweet’s attack on “presentism” — “history … as anachronistic data points” in support of contemporary political causes — might have seemed to locate the crisis on the wrong plane. And his criticism of a history limited in its approach to the past by “contemporary social-justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism” — gave an awkward culture-wars inflection to what was intended as a methodological intervention. Sweet’s essay was, as Joan W. Scott put it in our pages, “clumsy.”
But did it merit the outraged displays and implausible militancy directed at it on Twitter and elsewhere? And was Sweet’s subsequent apology — he lamented having caused “harm to colleagues” — the product of a healthy culture of intellectual give-and-take, or a concession to a new sensibility basically at odds with scholarly disputation? (“I’m listening and learning,” he concluded — which is something politicians say.) The philosopher Liam Bright, an adept observer of academic mores, surely spoke for many when he wrote that Sweet’s criticisms “should be a thing the field can talk out rather than demanding the critics just fold and apologise; if they can’t then … I don’t trust them.” Bright’s concerns were echoed by journalists and others for whom academic humanists’ often perplexing vituperations tend not to encourage confidence in the state of the university.
But once the first chorus of outrage dwindled, something surprising happened. Sweet’s essay ended up being, in a productive sense, the “provocation” he said he wanted it to be. Hard thinking about presentism — its definitions, its limits, its uses and perils — happened. In The New York Times, Jay Caspian Kang took the kerfuffle (what he called, amusingly, “one of the confusing messes that pop up from time to time in the highest reaches of academia”) as an occasion to ask whether invocations of historical precedent had become more distracting than clarifying: “Over the past two years, for example, I have been bewildered by how much of the conversation about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans has been dominated by evocations of history, whether it’s the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or Japanese internment.” On his blog, Timothy Burke questioned the “presumptive alterity” of the past that charges of presentism assume. And on Twitter, the intellectual historian L.D. Burnett wrote that, too often, critiques of presentism are rooted in “fantasies of epistemic distance or objectivity.”