Higher Education History Identity Politics

Commentary on James Sweet’s Essay about Historical Presentism

This post is a commentary on an essay by James Sweet, president of the American History Association, which appeared recently on the AHA site, along with an author’s note in which he responds to the intensely hostile reaction his essay provoked from other historians on social media in just the two days after the original post.  Here’s a link to the original.  

I’m posting it because I largely agree with his analysis of how the presentism of identity politics has infused history, as it also has infused other academic disciplines.  The problem with this approach, as most vividly represented by the ripple effects of the 1619 Project on the teaching of history in schools and universities, is that it imposes current values and mores on actors in the past, while refusing to understand their actions within historical context.  His example of his experience visiting a former slave-trading site in Ghana illustrates how this presentist pressure ends up distorting the history of slavery.  As a historian of Africa. he found this particularly striking.

I’m also posting this essay because I’m deeply offended by the way the author felt compelled to issue an immediate, abject apology for the essay because of the intense pressure he felt from the historical community.  If historians can’t discuss differences in historical interpretation in a reasoned and reasonably civil manner, without resorting to attacks on the character of the speaker, then historical discourse, and academic discourse more generally, are both doomed.  

Like other readers of the essay, I too have some disagreements with the Sweet’s argument.  In particular, I think he overstates the evils of presentism for historians.  (For a similar view, see David Bell’s essay in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education.)  My own view is that we, as historians, should be producing our historical accounts in light of our current experience, which provides a perspective for rethinking past interpretations of the past.  I wrote about this in my own piece, “Why We Need Histories of Education.”

History of education, like history more generally, continually struggles to inform contemporary policy without simply becoming its tool.  We need to mine history in order to speak to important educational issues in our own time; if we didn’t, we would be guilty of aimless antiquarianism.  But we need to be careful not to reconstruct history simply to score a convenient point in the politics of education in our own day.  There is too much of the latter going on already, as zealous partisans for every new educational reform slap together their own revisionist history to make the case for a particular political agenda. 

So how can we, as historians of education, address the educational issues that matter today without being unduly partisan?  Not by avoiding partisanship, since as citizens we all have our own visions of what education can be and what it can do for our society.  After all, education is less a technical field (analyzing what works) than a normative field (debating what goals we want education to pursue).  So as historians we choose to focus on issues that matter most to us politically and then apply our historical skills to those issues with the greatest rigor that we can.  This argues for a history that is both politically motivated and analytically validated.

For me the key formulation is that we should be producing the histories we need not the histories we want.  Our historical accounts should inform current policy without pandering to current proclivities.  Done right, this kind of history is likely to be discomfiting.  I find Sweet’s essay to be a good example of such discomfiting work.

Below is Sweet’s essay, preceded by his subsequent apology, as they both appeared on the AHA site.

AUTHOR’S NOTE (AUG 19, 2022)

My September Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members. I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused. I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment. Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.

A president’s monthly column, one of the privileges of the elected office, provides a megaphone to the membership and the discipline. The views and opinions expressed in that column are not those of the Association. If my ham-fisted attempt at provocation has proven anything, it is that the AHA membership is as vocal and robust as ever. If anyone has criticisms that they have been reluctant or unable to post publicly, please feel free to contact me directly.

I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.

Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.

James H. Sweet


Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present

James H. Sweet | Aug 17, 2022

Twenty years ago, in these pages, Lynn Hunt argued “against presentism.” She lamented historians’ declining interest in topics prior to the 20th century, as well as our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present. Hunt warned that this rising presentism threatened to “put us out of business as historians.” If history was little more than “short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,” wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?

The discipline did not heed Hunt’s warning. From 2003 to 2013, the number of PhDs awarded to students working on topics post-1800, across all fields, rose 18 percent. Meanwhile, those working on pre-1800 topics declined by 4 percent. During this time, the Wall Street meltdown was followed by plummeting undergraduate enrollments in history courses and increased professional interest in the history of contemporary socioeconomic topics. Then came Obama, and Twitter, and Trump. As the discipline has become more focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality. Our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations.

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? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t.

In many places, history suffuses everyday life as presentism; America is no exception. We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics. The consequences of this new history are everywhere. I traveled to Ghana for two months this summer to research and write, and my first assignment was a critical response to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review. Whether or not historians believe that there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?

This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times.

When I first read the newspaper series that preceded the book, I thought of it as a synthesis of a tradition of Black nationalist historiography dating to the 19th century with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent call for reparations. The project spoke to the political moment, but I never thought of it primarily as a work of history. Ironically, it was professional historians’ engagement with the work that seemed to lend it historical legitimacy. Then the Pulitzer Center, in partnership with the Times, developed a secondary school curriculum around the project. Local school boards protested characterizations of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as unpatriotic owners of “forced labor camps.” Conservative lawmakers decided that if this was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all. For them, challenging the Founders’ position as timeless tribunes of liberty was “racially divisive.” At each of these junctures, history was a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity. It was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.

History Image

In Ghana, I traveled to Elmina for a wedding. A small seaside fishing village, Elmina was home to one of the largest Atlantic slave-trading depots in West Africa. The morning after the wedding, a small group of us met for breakfast at the hotel. As we waited for several members of our party to show up, a group of African Americans began trickling into the breakfast bar. By the time they all gathered, more than a dozen members of the same family—three generations deep—pulled together the restaurant’s tables to dine. Sitting on the table in front of one of the elders was a dog-eared copy of The 1619 Project.

Later that afternoon, my family and I toured Elmina Castle alongside several Ghanaians, a Dane, and a Jamaican family. Our guide gave a well-rehearsed tour geared toward African Americans. American influence was everywhere, from memorial plaques to wreaths and flowers left on the floors of the castle’s dungeons. Arguably, Elmina Castle is now as much an African American shrine as a Ghanaian archaeological or historical site. As I reflected on breakfast earlier that morning, I could only imagine the affirmation and bonding experienced by the large African American family—through the memorialization of ancestors lost to slavery at Elmina Castle, but also through the story of African American resilience, redemption, and the demand for reparations in The 1619 Project.

Yet as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. Less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean. Should the guide’s story differ for a tour with no African Americans? Likewise, would The 1619 Project tell a different history if it took into consideration that the shipboard kin of Jamestown’s “20. and odd” Africans also went to Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda? These are questions of historical interpretation, but present-day political ones follow: Do efforts to claim a usable African American past reify elements of American hegemony and exceptionalism such narratives aim to dismantle?

The Elmina tour guide claimed that “Ghanaians” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery unknowingly. The guide made no reference to warfare or Indigenous slavery, histories that interrupt assumptions of ancestral connection between modern-day Ghanaians and visitors from the diaspora. Similarly, the forthcoming film The Woman King seems to suggest that Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo fought the European slave trade. In fact, they promoted it. Historically accurate rendering of Asante or Dahomean greed and enslavement apparently contradict modern-day political imperatives.

Hollywood need not adhere to historians’ methods any more than journalists or tour guides, but bad history yields bad politics. The erasure of slave-trading African empires in the name of political unity is uncomfortably like right-wing conservative attempts to erase slavery from school curricula in the United States, also in the name of unity. These interpretations are two sides of the same coin. If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise.

This is not history; it is dilettantism.

Too many Americans have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions, a trend that can be seen in recent US Supreme Court decisions. The word “history” appears 95 times in Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion overturning New York’s conceal-carry gun law. Likewise, Samuel Alito invokes “history” 67 times in his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Despite amicus briefs written by professional historians in both cases (including one co-authored by the AHA and the Organization of American Historians), the court’s majority deploys only those pieces of historical evidence that support their preconceived political biases.

The majority decisions are ahistorical. In the conceal-carry case, Justice Thomas cherry-picks historical data, casting aside restrictions in English common law as well as historical examples of limitations on gun rights in the United States to illustrate America’s so-called “tradition” of individual gun ownership rights. Then, Thomas uses this “historical” evidence to support his interpretation of the original meaning of the Second Amendment as it was written in 1791, including the right of individuals (not a “well regulated Militia”) to conceal and carry automatic pistols. In Dobbs v. Jackson, Justice Alito ignores legal precedents punishing abortion only after “quickening.” concluding: “An unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.” This is not history; it is dilettantism.

In his dissent to NYSRPA v. Bruen, Justice Stephen Breyer disparagingly labels the majority’s approach “law office history.” He recognizes that historians engage in research methods and interpretive approaches incompatible with solving modern-day legal, political, or economic questions. As such, he argues that history should not be the primary measure for adjudicating contemporary legal issues.

Professional historians would do well to pay attention to Breyer’s admonition. The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.

James H. Sweet is president of the AHA.

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