James Sweet does recognize a problem in the historical profession in his essay, “Is History History” (IHH), published earlier this week. The relationship among journalism, history, and media has reached a critical state. His attempt to reinstate an early twentieth century standard about ‘presentism’ drives scholars and readers away from historical analysis precisely when they need it most.
As an essay, IHH begins with a faulty premise about the 1619 Project and recent journalism that incorporates historical themes. The indictment of historical work that engages in current policy debates and social justice work negates whole areas of work (notably, women’s history, LGBTQ history, social history of capitalism, and the whole range of Ethnic Studies fields) that have enriched the profession immeasurably over the last sixty years.
Then, it closes with the abuse of history represented in recent Supreme Court rulings, where arguments about originalism derive from erroneous readings of eighteenth century English common law. The linkage between the transformation of the historical profession and the diminution of the federal judiciary are connected, but not in the ways that Sweet implies. The Supreme Court is trying to silence the profession as it has evolved. The historical profession, in its most inclusive places, affirms humanity universally, creating a foundation for new legal traditions and rulings.
The criticisms in IHH hit home here because the expansion of historical content and applications is the heart of my career. I believe that history educators are equal partners with the distinguished chairs in higher education. I believe that public historians in museums and parks have knowledge and skills that are as (or more) rigorous than the practices of publication at the top three academic outlets. I believe that impact is not simply measured in relation to DOI tracking, but also through social media metrics and sustained relationships in communities and schools.
My best work over the last decade involves the breakthrough in getting professional recognition for other scholars to engage the public through digital platforms, especially Twitter. Could there be more robust systems of organization and editing for the content produced through these outlets? Certainly. Do we need more clear descriptions of which works are academic histories, journalistic histories, and scholastic histories? Definitely.
What none of us can overcome are the fraudulent attacks on academic discourse that have eliminated funding for higher education, created peonage for three generations of college students, and the storm of automated social media accounts that seek to silence dissent in pursuit of universal human rights. When the AHA locked its social media account, it was not due to the membership protesting the limitations of historical vision in IHH. It was the massive, white nationalist campaign to attack the profession for including more voices and perspectives.
James Sweet and the AHA have an important opportunity in the next four months to welcome honest contributions from public advocates across the political spectrum. Nineteenth century standards of “presentism” will not help us to create history for the next century. Bringing the advancements of the profession, especially Black Studies, public pedagogy, and social media, will.
It must not repeat the mistakes that followed the Brown v. Board decision. The nation (and the world) assumed that Black institutions were inferior to white institutions and had to be eliminated to create equal opportunity. While the physical facilities (bathrooms, water fountains, train cars, etc.) were certainly unacceptable, the human beings who led and developed those segregated institutions were some of the best experts to create equal justice. The choice to cast them aside, to reject expanded investment in their work, expanded the impoverishment of the Global South and empowered the white nationalist coalitions that had no interest in justice and human rights.
Today, the historical profession has a chance to place the best historians at the center of every program, archive, park, museum, department, and university. Look to the vibrant new fields of study to shape an engaged, responsible standard of historical knowledge production that allows all people to benefit. In publishing, film, music, architecture, and public policy, history is essential.
We can make the AHA what it always should have been — a treasure for people everywhere.