I read James Sweet’s AHA President’s column before I knew about the firestorm it created. He has since appended an apology to the essay. I believe this is a mistake.
In the privacy of my own thoughts, I believed he was making an important point about the dangers of allowing contemporary agendas to overtake the nuts and bolts of historical work: complexity, change over time, the value of studying the obscure and “irrelevant,” the surprising insights that come from being willing to really listen and learn from the “foreign country” of the past.
Sweet’s concerns about presentism in the historical profession resurface a perennial debate that is vital to the discipline. If we ever stop seeing the tension between our agendas and a messy past that does not yield to our projects, we’ll have lost something important indeed. We should be glad for the curmudgeons who remind us of this fact.
Yet there are a couple basic points that should have given Sweet pause before he sent his think piece off for publication.
Our profession is under enormous pressure to justify its existence. History departments are being consolidated or even shuttered outright. Competition for enrollments is intense. I would love to teach a proudly “irrelevant” course. But if I can’t get undergraduates to enroll in it, it’s not going to happen. Under these circumstances, the profession’s drift toward what is deemed “relevant” is probably much more than an ideological disposition. It’s a survival strategy. Sweet may well be right that it’s a strategy that risks undercutting our very reason for being, but he would have done well to consider the systemic pressures the profession faces. Putting the whole trend down to ideology seems like sloppy thinking.
The second and more vital point that Sweet was strangely silent about strikes at the heart of his essay. Presentism was a feature of the professionalization of the historical discipline! The emergence of our field was bound up in national and racial mythmaking. It was routine for historians to shape the past and distort it to fit their nation-building projects and racial myths. Presentism isn’t a new problem. It’s the discipline’s original sin.
Presentism’s temptations vary with the times, but the basic allure is always there. After all, historical thinking is an unnatural act. We must talk about presentism now not because it is novel but because it is always a threat to the integrity of the discipline.
The problem with Sweet’s essay is not that it’s immoral or “caused harm.” The problem is that its ideas are muddled. It’s an essay about presentism that lacks historical context! Its critique of a discipline drifting toward obsession with the recent past is awkwardly grafted onto a commentary on the 1619 Project. Worse, Sweet paints in broad strokes here and lacks the analytical specificity of other historians who have already criticized the 1619 Project far more cogently.
Ironically, Sweet’s apology illustrates the dangers to the profession more clearly than his original essay. The apology slips the whole controversy into the frameworks of contemporary intra-left discourse rather than intellectual exchange. Sweet’s abject apology is full of morally loaded words, but does not actually concede any intellectual ground. He does not invite more debate and offer substantive response to critics. Instead, by moralizing the conversation, he shuts it down. Sweet shouldn’t apologize. He should explain which arguments are causing him to reconsider his ideas. When he is ready, he should clarify how his thinking is changing.
I’m about to start a new semester with undergraduates. I tell them I’m committed to an open classroom where every voice matters and dialogue can occur across deep disagreement. I tell them we can say to each other, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why,” while honoring the personhood of the individual with whom we disagree. Dialogue is messy. We will say things we would phrase differently upon reflection. We will offend each other. But students need to know that all this can occur under the rubric of sharpening each other’s thinking. It doesn’t have to be a morally loaded high-stakes game of guilt and harm.
One does expect the President of the American Historical Association to have more thoughtful arguments than are featured in an undergraduate classroom discussion. But the answer to sloppy thinking is not the language of harm and apology. I tell my students that interpretation and disagreement are at the center of the historical enterprise. But after this sorry spectacle among professional historians, my students would be right to wonder if I’m telling them the truth.