College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

What is history and what does it do?

(Reflections on the goals and meaning of this discipline.  Emphases added.)

Postcards from the past

I want to show how different the past was.  I want to show that even when times were hard, people found ways to cope with what was happening and maybe resist it.  I want people today to be able to connect with the past by looking at the tragedies and the sufferings of the past, the cruelties and the hatefulness, the hope of the past, the love the people had, and the beauty that they had.  They sought for power over each other, but they helped each other, too.  They did things both out of love and fear—that’s my message.  Especially I want to show that it could be different, that it was different, and that there are alternatives.

            Natalie Zemon Davis, interview, 1981 (MARHO, Visions of History)


Historians construct narratives that provide social groups—national, regional, ethnic, and other—with a collective identity, in the same way that we construct our personal identity by telling ourselves the story of our life.  We can, of course, gain a new sense of ourselves by achieving a new perspective that transforms the narrative: many forms of psychotherapy aim at helping patients do just that.  Changing the story of a collective entity such as a nation can be liberating, but is almost inevitably fraught and usually meets with enormous resistance.

            Sarah Maza, Thinking About History, 2017


Everyone is biased, whether they know it or not, in possessing fundamental goals, purposes, and ends.  If we understand that, we can be properly skeptical of all historians (and journalists and anyone who reports on the world) and check to see if their biases cause them to emphasize certain things in history and omit or give slight consideration to others.

            Perhaps the closest we can get to objectivity is a free and honest marketplace of subjectivities, in which we can examine both orthodox accounts of the past and unorthodox ones…We can then decide for ourselves, based on our own values, which accounts are most important and most useful.

            Howard Zinn, Passionate Declarations, 2003


The form in which we think of the past is increasingly memory without borders rather than national history within borders.  Modernity has brought with it a very real compression of time and space.  But in the register of imaginaries, it has also expanded our horizons of time and space beyond the local, the national, and even the international.  In certain ways, then, our contemporary obsessions with memory in the present may well be an indication that our ways of thinking and living temporality itself are undergoing a significant shift.  This is what the whole academic debate about history vs. memory is subliminally all about…

            Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts, 2003


It may seem that the past is by definition over, but the past is always changing because historians and the purposes of history are changing too.  When we look for new things in the past…we end up finding unexpected sources and coming to unforeseen conclusions.  This variety is not a sign of the fragility or frivolity of history or the inherent biases and prejudices of historians.  Seeing cannot take place without a standpoint.  The constant evolution of the purpose of history is a sign, rather, of its vitality.  Every new age looks for an understanding of its place in time, and without history it would not have one.

            Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era, 2014


The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild.  By contrast, the present is farmed.  The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds.  The reformers and social activists of the past faced with the urgent task of feeding he hungry and housing the unsheltered, failed to anticipate that the poor would, in exchange, be surrendering the riches they actually possessed; their neighborhoods as well as their use of time, their scavenger economy, their cooperative defenses, their refusal to behave, their ability to drop out of sight, their key to the unclaimed, the scorned, the common property of the streets.  As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was.

            Luc Sante, The Other Paris, 2015


The city, then, is not static content, but pure movement, history, process…at the same time, there are also pivotal moments when researchers begin to detect discursive nodes—centers of tension where all kinds of aspirations, concerns, and anxieties converge with pressing urgency, coinciding fortuitously with attempts to control social meaning, which is precisely the task of imaginaries.  In Buenos Aires, these discursive nodes acted upon incandescent evidence of upheavals, crossroads and dilemmas, marches and counter-marches, consolidations, detours and failures—all eventually projected not just onto events marking the grand history of the country but also onto everyday life.

            Adriana J. Bergero, Intersecting Tango, 2008


Western Europe, he said, had been rotting away. Everything had been rotting: the frontiers, the parliaments, the churches, the political parties, the social barriers, the cheap idealism, the hideous paintings, the non-sensical literature, the shoddy journalism, the whole morass of chicanery and blindness and betrayal.  
            The deluge had come.  And here in Lisbon, as in Noah’s ark, had gathered the remnants.  Specimens of every vanishing type; every genus and every aberration, however bizarre, were represented.  Extricated and safe, they were watching the flood of history rush past.  All around it went swirling and roaring, uprooting, annihilating… 

            Frederic Prokosch, The Conspirators(1943)
Among the prizes at stake in the endless war of politics is history itself. The battle for power is always a battle to determine who gets remembered, how they will be recalled, where and in what forms their memories will be preserved. In this battle, there is no room for neutral parties: every history and counter-history must fight and scrap and claw and spread and lodge itself in the world, lest it be forgotten or forcibly erased. All history, in this sense, is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past. 

              Maximillian Alvarez, “The End of the End of History,” Boston Review, Fall 2018




Remembering Dr. Ethan Schmidt
Class of 2007

The History Department lost an alumnus September 14 when he was killed by a gunman on the campus of Delta State University. Please visit the memorial page to honor his memory and learn how to donate to the  Ethan A. Schmidt Memorial Award .


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