Should Historians Make “Judgements” About the Past in their Scholarship?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.

There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?

In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.

Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.

To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂



“He Was a Man of His Time”

From journalist Adam Serwer’s two essays (here and here) on the now-removed statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans:

[Robert E.] Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

Food for thought.


Institutional Authority and the Value of History in a Time of Uncertainty

The National Council on Public History’s 2017 Annual Meeting has concluded and I’m back home doing my thing. There were more than 800 registrants at this year’s meeting who undoubtedly had a range of experiences during the conference, but on a personal level it was a true pleasure seeing old friends, making new ones, and having the chance to participate in important conversations about the state of the field.

In thinking about the conference’s theme since coming home–“The Middle: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?“–my mind keeps going back to two sets of questions I have about the role of authority within the field. One is between public historians and the publics they work with, the other is between public historians and the people who employ them.

Regarding the former set of questions, I was struck by how various sessions grappled with whether public historians should cede or assert their authority in these situations. To cite one example, various presenters analyzing controversial monuments in the United States and Argentina all admitted during the conference that beyond doing research on the monuments and presenting their findings, a correct path for navigating where to go in the future was mystifying. Do historians conclude by presenting their findings and avoid making declarative statements one way or the other, or do they use their authority to advocate for a particular position that may or may not reflect the viewpoint of a majority of a local community’s residents? If historians take a position, whose voices within the community do they choose to amplify and why? More specifically, since community members already have a voice regardless of whether or not public historians are there, whose voices do we choose to use our privilege and platform in service of?

Additionally, are their times when further dialogue over something like the presence of a controversial monument is unnecessary and public historians must start taking political action to achieve a larger goal? How useful is it for public historians to keep discussing so-called “counter-monuments” and contextual markers for something like the Liberty Place Monument when local residents in that community are ready to take that monument down?

In “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States,” a session I had the privilege of moderating, the question of historical authority in the visitor experience to sites of violence was a central question. Erica Fagan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explored the use of Instagram at Holocaust sites like Auschwitz and Dachau and mused on what extent historians should moderate these posts, arguing that these sites needed to have a social media presence to dispel historical myths and falsehoods. Yagmur Karakaya of the University of Minnesota assessed several museum exhibits in Turkey that romanticized the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. She made connections between the exhibit content and the rhetoric of the current Erdogen administration in promoting their own goals, wondering if there was a role for public historians to offer a more balanced and less nationalistic portrayal of the Ottoman past. And Amanda Tewes explored Calico Ghost Town, a small historic site in San Bernardino, California, that is entirely volunteer-run and is probably better described as a theme park than a historic site. Volunteers engage in battle reenactments and glorify the mythic western white miner who drank heavy, carried a gun, and asserted his individualism and masculinity. Meanwhile, the actual history of Chinese laborers in the area and Calico’s peaceful, relatively non-violent culture are completely ignored.

Assessing the correct relationship between public historians and their publics is not a new concept, and NCPH 2017 continued a long conversation within the field about this topic. Unfortunately I believe we all too often use buzzword jargon words like “shared authority,” “giving groups a voice,” “community,” “radical history,”  and “relevance” without thinking critically about what, exactly, we mean by these terms. This is something I warned about after last year’s conference, but I still think it’s a problem within the field. Moreover, while I won’t get into specifics here, I think we sometimes run the risk of taking too much credit for capturing the stories of disaffected groups who, once again, already have their own voices regardless of our presence. And when we do that, we come off as condescending and patronizing at best.

With regards to my second set of questions–the relationship between public historians and the people who employ them–it was obvious from the beginning that this conference was very much inward looking towards questions of employment and financial support for the long-term health of the field. To be sure, I am of the opinion that the humanities have struggled to maintain support since Socrates died for asking too many questions. But circumstances change over time and with our current political moment being highlighted by hiring freezes, potential budget cuts, and an increasingly politicized culture not just at the federal level but also the state and local level, it is safe to say that grad students about to hit the job market and new professionals at entry-level jobs are wondering about finding work and establishing career tracks. What happens when institutions face severe cuts and education is the first thing to go? What are the implications when the number of public history programs increases in times of economic uncertainty?

We are not sure what’s next and we all admitted it at the conference.

So, in sum, I think the big challenge for the field of public history continues to revolve around authority: Asserting our value as historians who enlighten, challenge, and inspire our many publics to understand and learn from studying history, but also using our positions to give those many publics a platform to share their experiences, stories, and perspectives about the past without us dominating the process.

Oh, also: I did a workshop on starting a walking tour business with Jeff Sellers and Elizabeth Goetsch, and it was probably one of the best experiences I have ever had at an NCPH conference.


“Weaponizing” History to Make Political Arguments is Lazy Historical Thinking

The Ku Klux Klan in 1928. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration
The Ku Klux Klan in 1928. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration

Over the past few days a good number of historians have been sharing an article from the Washington Post that ostensibly confirms what many of us in the field already know: history is relevant, important, and worth studying. The article, “In Divided America, History is Weaponized to Praise or Condemn Trump,” points out that thousands upon thousands of Americans on social media are using history–or, more appropriately, their understanding of history–to make arguments to “support or oppose” the current administration’s actions.  Moreover, the article provocatively claims that the President’s election has “certainly revived interest in U.S. history.” Many historians on social media are applauding these developments.

I don’t buy it.

While I agree that in our current moment we are seeing more online conversations that invoke historical figures and events, it’s worth asking a number of questions about this development. History is a tool that can be used to better understand where we came from and how we got to where we are now. Are we really engaging in conversations that actually strive to utilize historical thinking to understand what happened in the past, or have we simply turned basic historical facts into superficial rhetorical weapons to make political arguments about today? How productive is it to use history to debate government policy or predict how current policy will work in the long run? How useful is it to cite historical examples when the record is so vast as to justify any sort of political ideology or belief?

If there’s so much interest in history, why is the National Endowment for the Humanities facing the possibility of being cut completely from the federal budget? Why do colleges and universities continually trim down the budgets and staffing of history departments? Why is there a decline in students majoring in history? Why do high schools so frequently hire history teachers based on a candidate’s ability to coach a sports team and not because of their ability to educate students about the discipline? Why is visitor attendance to historic sites in a state of decline? Why do I have friends on Facebook who will simultaneously tell me that they enjoy reading history but that pursuing a liberal arts degree is “stupid” because such degrees are “fake” and “useless” on the job market?

Senator Ted Cruz recently argued that “The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan . . . The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” While it’s factually true that the KKK was founded by Southern Democrats after the Civil War, anyone who has even a cursory understanding of U.S. history knows that the Republican and Democrat party platforms have changed, evolved, and in some cases flipped from what they were in 140 years ago. But then again, Senator Cruz isn’t making this statement in the interest of understanding the context and complexity of history, in this case the Reconstruction era. He doesn’t care that the second wave of the KKK that emerged following the theatrical release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 recruited many of its members from the Republican party, so much so that in Indiana the KKK essentially took over the state Republican party and the State House in the 1924 state election. He doesn’t care that in 1890, amid a growing wave of black voting disenfranchisement initiatives throughout the South, the Republican party sold out its black constituents by giving up on the Lodge Bill, which would have allowed for federal oversight of federal elections and given circuit courts the ability to investigate voter fraud, disenfranchisement, and ensure fair elections. The Republican Party gave up on this bill so that it could get Southern support for a different bill that would raise tariffs rates, the party’s primary concern at the time. He doesn’t care that racism has been a staple of U.S. history and something widely supported by Americans of all political persuasions.

Senator Cruz doesn’t care about any of this because he is only concerned about using history as a weapon to praise his buddies and condemn his enemies. He wants to portray contemporary Democrats as bigots, racists, and ideological descendants of the KKK Democrats of the 1870s. He doesn’t care about the history.

It’s a shame that so many politicians on all sides of the political spectrum so often resort to weaponizing history.

A few days before the Washington Post article was published, Northwestern University history professor Cameron Belvins wrote what is in my mind the best essay of 2017 so far. He warns of the dangers of using history to predict the future and calls upon historians to consider the ways history might be counter-productive to understanding the complexities of today’s politics. You must read this essay – it is fantastic.

In sum, I think we historians still have a long way to go before we can declare victory in our effort to expose our students and the public more broadly to the joys and benefits of studying history. And I would argue that the value of studying history is not that it provides “answers” to contemporary problems or a solid blueprint for effective government policy in the future, but that it trains us how to interpret source material, appreciate change over time, and ask better questions about our world, both then and now.


What is the Benefit of Having “Historical Perspective” When Analyzing Current Events? (Part 2)

One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that it gives me a chance to hash out thoughts, ideas, and theories that may not be fully developed in my mind. Blogging for me is as much about asking questions about how and why we study history as it is writing essays that aim to inform readers on a given historical topic that I’ve studied. Indeed, asking questions about the fundamental theories the underlie the act of historical thinking and the intellectual contours of the profession is a necessary challenge all historians must address. In doing so, we better position ourselves to sharpen our methodological tools while simultaneously improving upon the ways we explain the importance of studying history to the rest of society. Doing a better job of answering the question “why study history?” has been a central challenge of my career as a public historian so far, and I’ve thankfully learned a lot not just by reading books but also blogging out my ideas and receiving constructive feedback from thoughtful readers.

With my last post I delved into the importance of having “historical perspective” when analyzing current events. Does it help to have historical perspective? If the answer is yes, then how so? My thoughts were shaky and I had no conclusive answers. Thankfully a number of commenters stepped in and offered some brilliant thoughts.

From Christopher Graham of the American Civil War Museum:

I think the comparisons of better/worse are not the right way to frame the questions and leads us to dumb debates over better/worse and that’s not very good history.

What historical perspective should be teaching us–aside from the overwhelming complexity that defies a better/worse narrative–is how this process of historical change works. We should be asking–where is the intentionality that represents tradition and systems, and where does contingency and the unexpected that shape sensibilities and events intersect with it? How does that inevitably make things different–not necessarily better or worse, just different. And how do we identify those historical processes at work in current events? The answer reveals that we should be looking widely for motivations for change, should be ready to accept the unexpected, and that it is a dynamic process.

And from Andrew McGregor of Purdue University:

I think a lot of folks who talk about historical perspective, talk in terms of compare and contrast, which, to me, isn’t really what history and historical perspective is about. I think one of the problems that your are wrestling with here is that questions like “how did we get here?” (which are an important question to ask!) are inherently teleological. Similarly comparing and contrasting almost always involved some sort of value judgment (progress or declension). Neither approach is very emotive or humanistic (to deBoer’s point), which forces us to rethink how we understand and tell the history of “victims” (for lack of a better word). I think historical perspective works best, when we are use it to understand and get inside of moments, ideas and arguments, cultures, to better understand the lineage of people’s experiences, creating what might be termed a historical empathy built through examples and understandings of the past. This is much more easily done we analyzing how and why people make certain arguments about the Confederate flag or the R*dskins mascot, but when talking about structures and processes (like criminal justice and policing) we sometimes lose that humanness in how we tell, explain, or understand history. I’ll stop rambling there, but I think my overall point here is that we need to be conscientious of keeping a humanistic historical perspective instead of falling into lazy patterns of analysis that are often flawed.

Both of these comments redirected my thinking on historical perspective towards a new direction. It’s perfectly natural for us to compare and contrast the conditions of contemporary society with those of past societies – it’s all we can really do since we can’t predict what the future will bring. But in focusing my thoughts on comparing past and present through a better-or-worse dichotomy, I failed to grasp all the different and dynamic ways historical thinking challenges us to assess the present beyond a simple progress/declension narrative. Historical thinking includes all that Christopher and Andrew mention in their comments; finding the intersection of intentionality and contingency, analyzing change over time, and exploring ideas, cultures, and experiences in a way that goes beyond making subjective judgements as to whether things are better or worse today.


Navigating the Intersection of History and Contemporary Politics

What it feels like to be a historian looking at contemporary politics.
What it feels like when a historian sees a politician abusing the past for his or her own ends.

Many of us who study history do so in part because we are curious to see how our current society came to be. When discussing anything like education, economic, or foreign policy, it helps to see how policies, theories, laws, and ideas have evolved over time. There is a seductive quality to historical thinking. Sometimes, for better or worse, it leads us to believe that studying the past can offer us stability, order, and a better understanding to the world. We should be cautious, however, about drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the past can really teach us about the present or what it can do in terms of mapping out a foundation for future policy. Likewise, we should be very cautions about drawing comparisons between historical events and contemporary politics. I’ve been seeing a lot of these types of articles lately. But of all the reasons one may be inclined to oppose Donald Trump’s presidential bid, I don’t think Zachary Taylor’s rise to the Whig party’s Presidential nomination in 1848 as an “outsider” candidate and the subsequent fall of the Whig party in the 1850s is one that would prevent many people from voting for Trump, even if there are some similarities between the 1848 and 2016 elections. (It also bears pointing out that Ulysses S. Grant was very much a political “outsider” when he accepted the Republican party’s nomination in 1868, and the party turned out to be just fine with him at the helm. So it seems like there is no accepted wisdom when it comes to choosing outsider candidates based on historical precedent).

Ultimately I think there is a very fine line between studying history for the sake of understanding changes over time and how things came to be, and studying history as a means of forming future policy. I often get lost in the gray area of the intersection of history and politics when thinking about the importance of historical thinking as a way of making sense of the world. I do think there are some connections to be made between past and present. Here in the United States I don’t believe it’s a mere coincidence that the states where the harshest anti-LGBTQ legislation has been passed are also the states that most ardently supported Jim Crow laws and resisted the Civil Rights Movement in the recent past. And yet at the same time I understand that the people of the past were not like us. There’s nothing suggesting that today’s society will act a certain way because of what happened in the past. I don’t believe that history repeats itself. But how we understand the past is contested in part because we disagree about the historical connections and comparisons that make sense for explaining the world today. As a society debates its history and competing interpretations vie for the most compelling understanding of the past based on available evidence, politics fills the void left by an uncertain, incomplete, and inchoate understanding of the role of history in shaping present circumstances.

Are there any “lessons of history” to be gleaned from studying the past? There are a few that come to mind for me.

One “lesson” is that humans are complex figures and nothing is predictable. Historical precedents often give us imperfect answers for solving contemporary problems. At the same time, while I value the contributions of social scientists in politics and economics, I tend to look upon their predictive models with great skepticism because they value generalizations that dismiss statistical outliers over complex interpretations that take a more holistic view of societal thinking, which is what historians try to do most of the time. That does not mean social science has nothing to contribute, but only that there will be incorrect predictions at times and human behaviors that go beyond numbers and trends. Nate Silver screws up sometimes.

The other lesson is that “progress” is a double-edged sword that always comes with a trade-off. The invention of standardized time in the 19th century provided order to an industrializing world and ensured more efficiency and larger production capabilities in a capitalist economy, but it also made people slaves to the clock and killed many workers who yielded under this unforgiving economic structure. The development of the world wide web, the internet, and smartphone technology quite literally gives us the world at our fingertips, allowing us the chance to access tens of thousands of books, articles, and bits of information that people in the past would have never had access to. And yet at the same time we have become addicted to our phones. The internet is full of misinformation that spreads like a wildfire through social media and poorly-written memes. Whether or not we are truly smarter than those who lived before this technology is very much an open question. And, as Evgeny Morozov has so convincingly demonstrated, the internet doesn’t make us freer and in fact can be used to prop up authoritarian governments. I subscribe to the Walter Benjamin theory of progress and his conception of history as a storm that we crash into while we have our backs to the future.

In the end I like what historian Ian Beacock has to say about history and contemporary politics. To wit:

Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.


Bad Historical Thinking: “History is Written By the Victors”


One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history; the “winners” have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners.

(I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).

There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.

In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).

All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most white Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.

History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of those in power. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when I heard the complaint that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.