A Paradox: History Without Historians

tags: public history, teaching history, academic labor

I'm wrestling with a dilemma, a paradox. Media, social and otherwise, want to know why history has seemingly lost status in higher education. Majors are declining; enrollments have stabilized unevenly across institutions. Departments are being consolidated and losing positions as chairs are told to tighten their belts. 

At the same time, history itself—along with history education and the public commemoration of historical events—pervades these same media, the focus of battles over the very essence and future of the United States. The already iconic photographs from the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol reek of history: medieval imagery, the 1775 Gadsden flag, abundant Confederate emblems. Reporters ask historians whether 1619 or 1776 holds the key to our national identity, or why state legislators have disparaged a particular set of curricula and introduced bills that list forbidden concepts, topics, and perspectives. 

The controversy generating the most attention of late is the already infamous “Report from the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission,” issued on the penultimate full day of the Trump administration. After President Biden quickly withdrew the report and disbanded the commission, many journalists and historians breathed sighs of relief; surely this was the end of the matter. But the report lives on, not only in the National Archives as an official document, but also on the Heritage Foundation website as part of an attack on academic historians and the New York Times and Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project Curriculum. As one journalist told me, one commission member has made it clear that she “wants school boards and students to read the report,” and that “the deactivated commission still plans to meet and rework the report.” 

The 1776 Commission is not yet dead. I fear seeing the report put to use, zombie-like, to delegitimate the work of professional historians, while activists and legislators work—as boosters or propagandists, not as historians—to influence local history education. This is already brewing in at least three state legislatures (Arkansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma), with bills in the hopper that aim to purge teaching materials of “divisive concepts.” Consider proposed legislation in Arkansas: 

A public school shall not allow a course, class, event, or activity within its program of instruction that: Promotes the overthrow of the United States Government; Promotes division between, resentment of, or social justice for a: (A) Race; (B) Gender; (C) Political affiliation; (D) Social class; or (E) Particular class of people.

The AHA’s statement on the 1776 Commission report, printed below, articulates what is at stake. Although the immediate target of the commission, the president who appointed it, and its allies in state legislatures is the 1619 Project, the broader and more enduring goal is to perpetuate celebratory myths of a nation whose essence lies in extremely limited government and cultural homogeneity. They want neither to confront our past nor learn from it. 


Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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