8.30.2022 – habit of weighing

habit of weighing
past against social moral
trends of the present

The End of History was supposed to have happened back in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and Francis Fukuyama announced the conclusive triumph of liberal democracy. We know how that thesis worked out. But what happens when the other kind of History — academic, not Hegelian — starts to collapse?

That’s a question that James H. Sweet, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the president of the American Historical Association, tried to raise earlier this month in a column titled “Is History History?” for the organization’s newsmagazine. It didn’t go well.

Sweet’s core concern in the piece, which was subtitled “Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” was about the “trend toward presentism” — the habit of weighing the past against the social concerns and moral categories of the present.

“This new history,” he wrote, “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.”

Adapted from This Is the Other Way That History Ends, an opinion piece in the New York Times by BRET STEPHENS.

Way back when I was studying history at the University of Michigan my Professors stressed three things.

  1. YOU ARE THE EXPERT – Take you readers by the hand as they don’t know what you know and they certainly don’t know where you are going.
  2. COMPASSION – Don’t be so quick to judge until you get ALL your facts.
  3. AT ALL COSTS, AVOID PRESENT MINDEDNESS – You cannot make assumptions, conclusions or judgements based on today’s values against yesterday.

Somehow I think I was lucky to have been in school back then and not today.

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