When I was in graduate school, studying for a degree in history, my department went through a hiring process to bring in a new faculty member. Custom dictated that each candidate's interview include an informal question-and-answer session with some of the department's graduate students. The questions I decided to pose to each candidate were ones I had been wrestling with myself: Why study history? Are there lessons we can learn from the past that might benefit the present? I expected at least tentative answers, but what I got instead, in nearly every case, were blank looks of incomprehension. These questions seemed not to have occurred to these historians, and they struggled to provide any kind of response.
After one of these sessions, an older graduate student took me aside. I was surprised to see that he was agitated, even angry, about my line of questioning. My questions, in his eyes, were not just odd, but indecent, violating some unspoken rule of etiquette within the historical profession. Why should these scholars have to justify their discipline, he asked? Who are you to put them on the spot in this way?
More than a decade later, I have learned that such attitudes are widespread among professional historians, at least in Canada. In North American universities, advanced training in history tends to bracket foundational questions about the origins and purpose of the discipline and treat it as a side interest pursued by an eccentric few. More broadly, however, it reflects a disdain—not taught so much as passed on by osmosis—for the idea that we can learn "lessons" from the past, as if we were people arguing about Hitler in online comment sections.
Now, in reality, under the layers of feigned detachment, many historians are deeply invested in the past as a particular kind of morality tale. As Christian Smith has recently argued regarding American sociologists, historians are engaged in their own "sacred project" of vindicating the marginalized, exposing what they see as unjust systems (whether neoliberal capitalism, white privilege, patriarchy, or heteronormativity), and subverting all potentially oppressive categories. This project, whatever it might have to commend itself, turns history into a vindication of a set of values that were literally unthinkable before the intellectual milieu of the late modern West.
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