This Is the Other Way That History Ends

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.

The column offered some muted criticism of The Times’s 1619 Project (along with jabs at Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) and warned that “bad history yields bad politics.” It immediately raised howls of protest on Twitter from left-wing academics. Within two days, Sweet produced a groveling apology, in which he indicted himself for a “ham-fisted attempt at provocation” that “alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends” and for which he was “deeply sorry.”

We should now feel deeply sorry for Sweet, who probably didn’t realize that, in the cancel culture we inhabit, apologies intended as bids for forgiveness are almost invariably taken as admissions of guilt. But the larger shame is that Sweet had important things to say in his thoughtful column — things that the reaction to the column (and the reaction to the reaction) now risk burying.

Between 2003 and 2013, a dwindling number of history Ph.D.s, he noted, were going to students doing work on topics preceding 1800. At the same time, historians were producing works that “collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates,” particularly those connected to identity politics.

“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.”

Put another way, Sweet was warning that historians risked doing an injustice both to their own profession as well as to the past itself by falling victim to “the allure of political relevance.” His main example came from a recent visit to the Elmina Castle in Ghana, which had once been one of the principal sites of the Atlantic slave trade. These days, he wrote, the castle has become a kind of shrine for African Americans seeking a place to memorialize enslaved ancestors.

But, Sweet says as a historian of Africa, “less than 1 percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America” — most enslaved Africans who survived the middle passage ended up in Brazil or the Caribbean. And those who were enslaved were often first brought to Elmina by other African brokers who promoted the slave trade just as cruelly and greedily as the Europeans with whom they did business.

That does nothing to diminish the evil of the trade, much less its relevance to America’s past and present.

But it helps put it into a global context in which the roles of victim and victimizer seldom fall neatly along a color line. If that challenges current orthodoxy, it’s only because that orthodoxy is based on a simplistic understanding of history. The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates.

Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct. This shouldn’t prevent us from making moral judgments about it. But we can make better judgments, informed by the knowledge that our forebears rarely acted with the benefit (or burden) of our assumptions, expectations, experiences and values. There’s a lesson in humility in that, as well as a reminder that we are only actors in time whose most cherished ideas may eventually seem strange, and sometimes abhorrent, to our descendants.

All this should have been a useful antidote to what Sweet correctly lamented as “the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag” for people “to articulate their political positions.” Instead, his column — which bent over backward to showcase his liberal bona fides — ignited the usual progressive furies. Anyone looking for further confirmation that modern academia has become a fundamentally ideological and coercive exercise masquerading as a scholarly and collegial one need have looked no further. It will be interesting to see if Sweet manages to hold on to his post as the American Historical Association’s president.

Meanwhile, in 2019 only 986 people earned history Ph.D.s, the first time the number had fallen below 1,000 in over a decade, according to an A.H.A. analysis of available data. That number is still nearly twice as high as the number of advertised job openings. If people are wondering how history ends, maybe this is how: when a scholarly discipline tries to turn itself into something it isn’t, making itself increasingly irrelevant in its desperate bid for relevancy.

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