Are historians still largely interested in their own nations, cultures, and societies, at the expense of the wider world?
Just over one year ago, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on the Affordable Care Act, and Perspectives on History organized its first AHA Roundtable, guided by the idea that history and historical thinking has something to offer just about any contemporary discussion on any contemporary topic.
As we have often tried to demonstrate, we at the AHA believe that public discourse on any topic benefits from historical context and historical thinking. In that spirit, we’re rolling out a series of AHA Roundtables on two of the significant Supreme Court decisions handed down this summer. We have asked a group of historians to comment on these opinions, and we’ll be posting their responses over the next two weeks.
First up is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
How is the web, particularly social media properties like Twitter, changing the way scholars communicate and form connections with each other? When I first started considering this question after the AHA annual meeting in New Orleans, I had been talking with bloggers and self-described “Twitterstorians” who had expressed concern over the lack of live-tweeting etiquette at conferences and meetings. Intrigued, we responded by crowdsourcing a “Dos and Don’ts of Live-Tweeting” list, but quickly realized that we needed to have a much broader conversation about ethical web practices and the future web environment for scholars.
Last night’s debate began with a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. My inner (or perhaps not so inner) AHA geek immediately jumped to recent efforts to make accessible to the public government documents relating to that event that are still classified. But I also was drawn to recent reflections (here, and here) on whether flawed historical interpretations have yielded equally flawed policy lessons – conventional wisdoms that were on display once again last night. It’s all about manhood and steely resolve, rather than the subtleties and occasional humility of collaboration and negotiation.
Anthony Grafton, president of the AHA in 2011, wrote in his inaugural column in Perspectives on History that “Historians of everything from drought in ancient Egypt to the economy of modern China do, in fact, have knowledge that matters—knowledge based on painstaking analysis of hard sources, which they convey to students and readers as clearly and passionately as can be managed.”
In that spirit, with the firm belief that we best understand the present when we more fully comprehend the past, the AHA is continuing its series of Roundtables on the presidential debates of 2012.
Do vice presidential debates matter? That seemed to be the question of the day, the one that dominated the airwaves before and after last night’s debate. From our perspective as historians, we are certain that they do matter, even if they don’t generate a bump in the polls or a defining moment in the campaign. For the historian, they are responses to long-standing trends and further evidence of the importance of understanding the past.
Our Roundtable on the vice presidential debate features historians responding as historians.
As a community of historians the AHA believes that public discourse on any topic benefits from historical context and historical thinking. In that vein we have asked a group of historians to comment on last night’s presidential debate as historians. We leave the punditry to the pundits; the partisanship to the politicians. Our role is to offer the benefit of historical thinking and historical context.
After listening to the first half hour of the debate, I began to wonder whether this forum might be more effective on the web site of the American Mathematical Society. But the end, however, it did indeed become clear that from the principles of nation’s founding documents to the use of evidence, and the ways in which we construct historical narratives of the recent past, the debate was indeed rooted in context. As Gwen Ifill observed afterwards, “They spent an awful lot of time talking about the past.”
—James Grossman, Executive Director, American Historical Association
“Both candidates should feel ashamed. If they ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates they’ll be mortified at the contrast. On the other hand, both doubtless realize that these 2012 debates are exercises in pure wishful thinking. They are premised on the idea that a new president can decide what to do on entering the White House.