Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Presentism and the Obligations of Historians

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by Weiner

In the recent New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore penned a fascinating piece on the Tea Party movement’s attempt to claim the American Revolution. It’s a good article, but I especially appreciated her calling on historians to offer a counter narrative to the Tea Partiers, who think “the present is a foreign country.” She invoked the spirit of Richard Hofstadter, the brilliant American historian and one of the last great public intellectuals who attempted to challenge those in the present who usurped the past:

The rise of this sort of thinking has gone, to some degree, unchallenged, just as, in the nineteen-seventies, historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived, but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. The American historical profession defines itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present falls outside the realm of serious historical study. That stuff is for amateurs and cranks. Hofstadter disagreed. He recognized the perils of presentism—seeing the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry to shabby self-justification—but he believed that scholars with something to say about the relationship between the past and the present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, and authority. Hofstadter died in 1970. He was one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations of his own time.

I value scholarship for its own sake, and writing for academic audiences. But sometimes historical work done for broader audiences, what we sometimes call public history, can be very important as well. This is one of those times.

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Written by David Weinfeld

April 30, 2010 at 18:30

One Response

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  1. […] all for historians engaging the public. It would be nice, as various writers on this blog have pointed out, for some prestigious historians of the American Revolution […]


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