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History is a High Stakes Profession

History is not a luxury. History frames the way we see the world. History shapes the action we take in our present. The stakes in history are high.

History is different from the past. The past is what happened. History is the act of interpreting the past. History is a conversation. It comes from a word that means “inquiry.” Each of us perform that act for ourselves, with the input of others—family, teachers, authors. We weigh claims, evidence, and arguments. We decide which narratives, which emphases seem true to us. We internalize those narratives. We act on them. We use them as justifications for policies that urge continuity or change in our world. Occasionally, we hear a convincing argument about why our understanding of the past should change. Even more occasionally, we accept a new understanding of what happened in the past. And sometimes that new understanding changes how we perceive our world and what we want it to become.

History is not neutral. There is no “correct” version. This is not to say that there are not widely accepted standards of evidence and argument. This is not to say that there are not powerful brokers of influence and legitimacy—convincing writers, curriculum standards, cultural organizations, social groups—which seek to advance different versions of the past. But each of us evaluates those claims for ourselves and decides whether to accept one version of the story over another. Or a handful of others.

The role of historical organizations and history teachers is to equip citizens to better evaluate the claims about the past with which we are presented on a daily basis. Our role is not to tell you what to think, but how. How to critically analyze sources, argumentative claims, bias, and interest.

And that is critically important for our society, for our republican institutions, for American democracy.

History is a high stakes profession.

The history faculty of a Kentucky high school learned that lesson this week through the alleged actions of a former student, accused of driving his car into a crowd in Charlottesville. It is as telling as it is heartbreaking that those Kentucky history teachers think they failed not only their student but the people whose lives he ended or forever changed. Those grieving teachers know the burden of our past. They understand—as we all should now—its reach into our present. Success or failure in history is not measured in A’s and F’s. It is not measured by grants won or endowments enlarged. It is not measured in monuments or exhibits or publications. Those are ways to advance the mission, but they are not the mission.

The mission is us. The mission is this experiment in human freedom and self-determination. And that mission is messy and contradictory and chaotic. And sometimes we fail. But that is all the more reason to keep trying.


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