Against Presentism

Drawing a distinction between moral judgement and empathetic analysis
Clarisse Meyer, Unsplash
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In the study of history, presentism is interpretation of the past through a prism of contemporary values. Recently, historian James Sweet, President of the American Historical Association, created a major kerfuffle for daring to question presentism in the AHA Journal.  Sweet’s rebuke was mild but ultimately concluded that “Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.” Threatened with cancellation, he wrote a groveling pseudo-retraction, but Sweet is absolutely correct in his initial conclusion.  

Presentism has no place in history classrooms. But it is widespread. 

Progressive high school history teachers employ a species of presentism via a self-proclaimed social justice curriculum  to advance causes like “equity,” “climate justice,” and “racial justice.”  Such teachers abandon history in favor of what amounts to a left leaning political agenda.  Gaslighting historical actors against a backdrop of contemporary mores encourages teenagers to abandon nuance for ersatz moral superiority.  Complex ideas, interactions and people are reduced to caricatures in service of a progressive narrative. Thus, Thomas Jefferson did nothing beyond abusing slaves and slavery itself was a uniquely European construct.

As an academic subject, ethical philosophy is distinct from history. History limits itself — not what should happen, but what did happen and why.  The widespread use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History (a poorly sourced Marxist history of the US) in American high schools speaks to the fact that progressive teachers too often intentionally blur that distinction. 

There may well be moral absolutes that transcend time and place, and history may have some applicability in a broad ethical debate. But, as an academic discipline, history (and history teachers) lack the tools and methodology to establish what those standards might be. History is a means of discovering the truth of that which emerged in and belongs to, the past. We do violence to history when we shove that truth aside in favor of presentism. Teachers do a gross disservice to their students when they substitute their own socio-political agenda as inescapable “lessons” of “history.”

Historical actors functioned in their present (our past) from specific (theoretically discoverable) motivations, concerns, and assumptions. The historian’s primary task is to understand people and events in context; as they existed within the constraints imposed by time and place. Such understanding demands empathy.

An objective study of history can develop the capacity to understand the ideation and experience of another despite never sharing similar experiences or necessarily agreeing with their ideas or actions.     

Virtually any historical figure can be lifted out of time and found wanting when held to a moral system they were neither aware of nor adhered to. In fact, because condemnation, under those circumstances, is a foregone conclusion the exercise of historical presentism is intellectually vapid. It serves no purpose beyond confusing personal bias with ineluctable truth and reaffirming a misplaced sense of moral superiority.

Moralists debate the existence of universal ethical standards. That is an important debate we are all well-advised to engage in. But history teachers do well to draw a bright-line distinction between moral judgment and empathetic analysis in the classroom.

Jeffry Bedore
After serving in the Marine Corps and working fifteen years in the private sector, Jeffry M. Bedore spent the last quarter century as the proverbial penguin in a flamingo flock, a conservative teaching in a high school history department.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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