I commented on Sweet’s piece here and here (including a long comment below the post). I thought it was well-done and a necessary reminder that the American Historical Association is made up of many historians, including those who are not inclined to doing “law office history” or history that merely serves the present. As I argued in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, historians explore the past as both “a foreign country” and as “useful.” It seems to me that Sweet was simply calling attention to the fact that these two tasks of the historian have been out of balance recently. I don’t know Sweet, but I can’t imagine he believes that the past has nothing to do with the present. As someone who has written books that explored the past as a foreign country and books that spoke to present moments, I thought Sweet’s piece was a helpful reminder. It was appropriate and necessary.
I should add that I write as the president of an AHA-affiliated historical society who recently addressed many of these issues in my presidential address, an address that dealt with this issue historically. (Many of those appalled by Sweet’s piece should be reminded that these debates are not new to the profession. Back in the late 1960s Eugene Genovese, a Marxist, was making the same case against so-called activist historians).
Sweet has added a “note” to this piece in which he apologizes to anyone offended by it. I don’t think an apology was necessary for the reasons I mentioned above, but when in doubt it is always good to apologize and try to listen to those upset with something you said in public. This is what history teaches you to do–empathize. (Which, of course, is different than sympathy or agreement).
Social media has only exacerbated things. Here is Jim Grossman, Executive Editor of the AHA:
Carlos Norena gets it right:
But, as Norena notes, occasionally Twitter can be used to bring some sanity to the conversation. Here, for example, is David Bell of Princeton:
Michael Kazin responds to Bell:
I also appreciate the words of NYU professor Thomas Sugrue:
Both Bell and Sugrue exemplify a nuanced approach to this question. Others, not so much. Why? Because Twitter rewards outrage. Some examples:
An English professor:
I would actually argue that Sweet’s piece can provide faculty facing cuts to history programs with the argument that history is different from every other discipline and needs to be preserved in the curriculum:
L.D. Burnett is using this controversy to settle old scores. (For the record, she completely misrepresents my position on Ranke):
And yes, I did give a voice to Daniel Feller. You can listen to that conversation here.
Appalling? Sweet’s ideas should be part of any historical methods course. A historical methods course is not designed to be a course in activism.