Historians: Write for the Future

Serena Zabin

Admission Tickets to the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, 1868. Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For scholars of the American Revolution and the early American Republic, these last few years have seemed like an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate the significance of our work. More often than not, it’s been a chance to drink from a firehose of relevant material. Twitterstorians are producing wonderful threads on the Constitutional Convention, essayists are publishing editorials on the causes of the American Revolution, and interest in Andrew Johnson is at an all-time high.

These responses to our present situation constitute essential work, and all of us, professional and amateur historians alike, owe a debt of gratitude to these public-facing scholars who share their thoughtful and articulate work on Twitter and in museums and through op-eds. But writing for the present cannot be the only way that historians work in the world. We must also write for the future.

Relevance guarantees its own demise. We historians are wondrously skilled in using our present politics to inform and improve our history, and we increasingly use the needs of our contemporary world to help us understand which stories we need to tell. But there are dangers in limiting ourselves to questions that bear on the present, because we don’t know what questions the future will choose to ask. To put it another way, we simply can’t tell what scholarship will come to be useful. So we have to write, not knowing how it will matter, but trusting that it will.

In her presidential address to SHEAR in 2016, Jan Ellen Lewis urged us to look for those “circumlocutions that mask the operations of power” both in the history we write and in the history we live. Making sense of these circumlocutions in the past for those is our great gift as historians. We can and do use our skills as close readers, as knowledgeable experts in the past, and as citizens of the present to uncover stories that some people in the past wanted to remain hidden.

But we must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can see through all the masks that hide the operations of power in our own world. We have our own blind spots. And so we cannot write only in response to our present moment, because we do not yet know what work future generations will need.

Most readers of this blog will know that in 1995 Lewis started to explain the hidden implications of race, gender, and slavery in the Constitution’s provisions for representation to the federal government. Counting, she pointed out to us, was never about the finding of some objective numbers but was instead a way of working out the possibilities and limits of inclusion in the United States. That was nearly 25 years ago. Who would ever have believed that in 2019 the United States would be embroiled in a fight over the census and that counting again would come to the fore? But that work on representation helps us understand the ways in which representation is not only about political parties and political gain but also about a larger vision of what the United States could be and should be. We cannot always know when the work that we are doing is actually topical.

As citizens, we offer our communities our zeal and our commitment to creating the sort of world we want to live in. As historians, we offer our slow work, our thoughtful, nuanced understanding, our respect for knowledge. And our greatest gift is our faith that it will matter some day.

20 December 2019

About the Author

Serena Zabin is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Carleton College.

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