What the AHA President Got Wrong—and RightRoundup
Jonathan Wilson is a contingent faculty member teaching at universities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Syracuse University.
Just after Christmas, the chief of staff of the United States Army stood before a national meeting of historians to tell them America’s military weakness was their fault.
You people, the general declared, have been writing bad textbooks. Few of you, he added, study military history at all anymore.
Because of what you teach—or don’t teach—in high school, America’s voters are complacent. Because of you, Congress has been underspending on national defense.
This claim went over about as well as you’d expect.
A former president of the American Historical Association icily replied a couple of days later that if the general would just get right-wing activists, parents, and legislators to stop censoring their work, his members would be happy to write honest textbooks.
It was 1939, four months after the Nazis invaded Poland.
History Is Political
More than eighty years later, the only surprising thing about General George C. Marshall’s attack—or Charles A. Beard’s rebuttal—is that anyone ever equated being a historian with writing high school textbooks. In every other respect, the story is familiar.
History is political because human experience is political. Historians have power, or at least we want them to. We require that secondary-school and university students study history because we hope it will shape their behavior as citizens. The work of historians, therefore, is always likely to be controversial.
The real question is how historians should exercise their power.
This summer, the current president of the American Historical Association wrote a 1,600-word essay for the AHA’s magazine, Perspectives on History. It ran under the headline “Is History History?”
He probably expected entire dozens of readers to see his essay. Perspectives is not exactly Us Weekly. Instead, James H. Sweet found himself under intense criticism from many of his colleagues on social media—especially on Twitter.
Within days, Sweet felt compelled to add an apology to the web version of the article. But responses from other historians in Perspectives kept the controversy simmering throughout September and October.
Then The Atlantic reported on it.