Historians need to do a better job explaining the complexities and vastness of history to non-historians. To many Americans, any change in familiar historical narratives amounts to revisionism (by which they basically mean a re-writing of history not based on evidence but on ideological preferences). Of course, we should all be concerned with false revisionism, but history is by its very nature is revisionist. We encounter new evidence, we expand what we know by including new perspectives (women, the poor, minorities, etc.), and through debates between historians. Early historical narratives are constructed with minimal evidence for purposes that have nothing to do with honest historical evaluation.
In her interview, Limerick, explained, “History doesn’t change, but a better understanding of it can change a person. And she said history is relevant to the problems we face today because good hindsight can lead to better foresight.” Hopefully Limerick’s message will be heard!
Source: Historian Patricia Limerick: We can’t change history, but we can change how we understand it | The Seattle Times
The historian Gregory J. W. Urwin debunks some of the self-serving Second Amendment narrative perpetuated by the NRA. Urwin’s essay is insufficient, but I applaud his effort. We need more historians pushing back against the seriously flawed and deadly NRA interpretation of the Second Amendment. The stakes are too high for them to remain on the sidelines.
I’m Irish-American and a historian, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of this controversy over Irish-American immigrants.
The controversy began after the historian Richard J. Jensen published the article “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization” in 2002. In it, Jensen argued that the Irish victimization narrative in America was based on a myth about “No Irish Need Apply” signs. He claimed that “there is no evidence for any printed NINA signs in America, or for their display at places of employment other than private homes.”
At the time some historians pushed back against Jensen’s claims, but no serious challenge was mounted against his claims. Although the historian Kerby Miller tried to mount an attack, he realized that it was “an unwinnable fight when he went to New Zealand to present some work and he was bombarded with questions on why he didn’t believe Jensen.” (The Daily Beast)
It took a 14-year-old student, Rebecca Fried, to debunk Jensen’s claim about the nonexistence of the NINA signs. She diligently searched through many newspaper databases and found plenty of evidence that these signs in-fact existed. (I want to add that there is plenty other evidence for the persecution of Irish Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maybe there was some exaggeration of the persecution the Irish faced but it was most definitely real.)
I question Jensen’s motives for his thesis. As historians we strive to be objective, but sometimes our bias get the better of us. This is why the study of history is a collective endeavor. We are all responsible for keeping other historians in check. In this case a curious student did what a fellow historian should have done. Great job Rebecca!
Read the interesting story here: Why historians are fighting about “No Irish Need Apply” signs — and why it matters – Vox.
Two political scientists, John R. Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith, propose that historians acknowledge “that biology is a key factor in a person’s politics.” There has been a lot of recent research that confirms this. But the real issue is not whether historians should acknowledge these findings (they should if the evidence supports them), it is whether or not this knowledge is useful to them in understanding the past. I’m not convinced that it is. While history may be useful in confirming (or dis-confirming) the pattern of conflicts “between innovation and tradition, between stability and progress” that is an expression of these biological predispositions, it offers little help to the historian in understanding particular historical events. And it may even lead us to misleading and false conclusions without any tools, beyond a person’s behavior, to determine someone’s biological predispositions. Given the type of evidence that we have, a person’s social, cultural, and political environment is more useful when it comes to understanding human motivations and behaviors.
This is not to dismiss the grow body of evidence that supports a biological component in human politics as useless. But it seems to be more relevant for human behavior today. This knowledge may be useful to changing human behavior, if it leads us to recognize that “[p]eople are different; they experience the world differently; they do not see, feel, and sense identical stimuli in the same way.” An appreciation of this could possibly “soften the edges of political disputes that are so detrimental.” One can only hope!
History News Network | This Research Suggests Why Historians Have to Begin Acknowledging that Biology Is a Key Factor in a Person’s Politics.
The anthropologist Peter Wood wrote an article last week on the History News Network (“Why Conservatives Are Up in Arms at the College Board’s Advanced Placement Course in History”) charging the College Board with politicizing the new Advanced Placement History standards. He claims that the new standards are “a radical interpretation of American history—one in which figures such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison play a drastically reduced part.”
Fred Anderson, a professor of History at the University of Colorado, participated in the creation of the new standards. In a new article, he challenges Wood’s interpretation of the new standards. Instead of politicizing the course, Anderson explains, they “hoped that future AP students would emerge from the course not just with a fund of facts at their disposal, but knowing how to ask productive questions about the past, and understanding why historical arguments must be governed, always and only, by the evidence.” And concludes that “Dr. Wood’s tortured reading of the Framework and his blanket denunciation of academic historians suggests that he, too, might pause to reflect on the values of rigor, impartiality, thoroughness, and intellectual honesty that were, in the end, all we hoped to foster.”
I admit, I find the charges that historians are “out to deconstruct American claims to exceptionalism” troubling. Historians are not in the business of myth-making and most teachers would rather teach their students history not myth. The kind of black and white thinking that only admits of two choices (either we are perfect or we are malevolent) is dangerous. To indoctrinate our children in myths of perfection is to create a culture of arrogance and stagnation. We should learn from our mistakes, not ignore them. The willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them is not un-American it is what makes America great.
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive.” JFK Presidential Library and Museum