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Blog Contest:What's the Role of Presentism in History Education?

Posted by Neal Adolph
28 May 2013 - 2:07pm

When Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian came out this past winter, I was fascinated. Serendipitously, it was timed with the early stages of the IdleNoMore. I read the book twice. I read about the book extensively. I listened to interviews. Thomas King did something beautiful. In one interview he said the following:

“One of my complaints with a great many history books is that they imagine that history is something that happened a hundred years ago, or at least 50 years ago. And I wanted to bring this story right up to the present day. Right to now.” 

I sighed when I first heard this. It was refreshing. I’m exhausted of reading stories that claim to be true. Particularly in history. I’m exhausted of reading stories that claim to truly present the past. Perhaps that is the post-modernist in me. The past cannot be reconstructed for the present. This isn’t a natural science. Our experiments have happened and we were probably not there when they did.

But still, King is a better historian than I am. We are both trying to tell stories about the past that have meaning. He does this much better than I do. His work is deeply troubling. Mine is mildly concerning. And, while my work may have more weight to it academically, it may feel more historical, his will do something my project does not. It will “bring his story right up to the present day.”

I talk to my students about truth and history and how they are completely unrelated. I often do this in my introductory tutorial, and then bring it up over and over and over again. It is the most important theoretical tool I can offer many of them. I tell them the past is so much more complicated than we can comprehend. I tell them that historians are editors barely skimming the surface of past events and selecting the parts that are interesting to them. I tell them that historians write their works for a particular audience. I talk to them about the great sin of presentism. And then I sin. With them. All semester long.

The great danger (among many) of presentism is that it can reify exotic notions of the past while reinforcing the absolute perfection of the present. I’m not a fan of this mode of historical thinking. Unfortunately, it makes the past less important than the present because it is no longer happening and consigns us to museums and other tourist attractions. Also, there are many things about present society that I don’t much like. That is why I do the history that I do. Rather than exalt the present, my history chastises it with evidence of the past.Based on the graduate students I work with, I suspect many of us do the same.

Ultimately, I do this using presentism. My project is written for a contemporary audience to read and understand in a present social formation. Without the present my project would be meaningless.

Further, without the present the project of teaching history at a university would be meaningless. And yet we forget about the present in our history departments all the time – paralyzed, perhaps, by our curriculum as much as by our post-modernist leanings. This produces a boat-load of lectures that have a great deal of historical significance but no present meaning. In doing so, these lectures somehow feel more ‘objective’ than other stories of the past we have heard – heavy with facts and unbounded by the laws of historical perception.For the post-modernist, objective is bad.

I should also add that this usually produces stale historical work. Stale is bad.A student that isn’t engaged is no longer a student.

So I commit presentism. All semester long. When teaching about the historically significant Indian Act I talk about the IdleNoMore movement. When teaching about anti-Prohibition protesters I talk about the decriminalization of cannabis. When discussing the Boer War I talk about Afghanistan. I do this to stress continuity while also encouraging my students to understand the immensely different contexts of 1905 and 2005. This is particularly easy to do with survey courses – the sort that, conveniently, often require teaching assistants.

But Neal!”, I can hear you saying, “isn’t that teaching bad historical methodology? Chakrabarty this… Chakrabarty that… anti-liberal rhetoric inserted here.” Yes, it is. And I don’t mind that so much. Survey courses are usually only at the introductory levels. My goal is to interest my students enough to take senior-level courses and, in these classes, start understanding the many challenges of producing ‘good’, stale, academic history.

To be honest, we commit presentism all the time. Let me extend Chakrabarty’s suggestion that all history is, actually, a history of Europe. (If you haven’t read Chakrabarty, you probably should). He makes this argument because we use European notions of time and periodization and intellectual standards when studying other regions of the world; by searching for notions of Marxism in India’s early independence movements we attempt to understand the world through Europe’s lens rather than from the local one. So, let me suggest that, if all history is about the past, and if all history is written in something called ‘the present’, then all discussion of the past is actually a discussion of the present. The present is our measuring stick – it is our method of comparison. So I commit presentism assuming that attempting not to commit presentism is impossible. The past cannot be reconstructed – it cannot be known by itself. We are historians who can only interpret it through the lens of the ever-changing present.

Presentism also gives something meaning in a way that talking only about the past cannot. It can de-exotify the past by highlighting continuity. It allows historians to tap into the broad body of sociological and social scientific work that talks about the ‘present’ and connect it with events that have happened in the past. This is important when teaching history because students are much more familiar with introductory sociological theories than with historical ones. Moreover, this gives instructors an opportunity to discuss historical methodology; trust me, there is evidence of contemporary sociological theories in historical documentation. Teach students to use these documents and discover the ways in which humans have interacted in very, very different contexts and in potentially similar ways. (Be careful, though, to avoid a historical naïve realism. Stress context and story.).

Also, talking about the present when talking about the past (and, hopefully, vice versa) grants significance to the field of history because it situates the contemporary lived experience into a grander, mythological story of time and space. This is important. I live in a country where lots of people can rattle off random information about the past, and tell us about its historical meaning. For the life of them, they can’t tell me why knowing it matters. This is why the discipline of history is under fire; people don’t have a sense that what historians do matters because they were always taught history matters because it is intrinsically significant. Talking about the past, and encouraging students to see the present and the past as intricately connected, one unknowable without knowing the other, is one way that history can become important in how people organize their lives.

All of this requires stepping away from the idea of historical truth and replacing it with meaningful narratives that alter how people think and behave in their present. This isn’t done with random “facts” or stories of historical significance that emphasize the history over the significance. It is done with teaching methodologies that emphasize stories that the audience can make sense of as more important than information that they can barely imagine(and, whether we allude to the works of Alessandro Portelli or Thomas King, we see that the importance of a story is less in its ‘factiness’ and more in what it reveals to the listener).

The present is in my past. It is also in the histories that many of us write. It is what gives it life and importance – for the writer, it grants our work a soulful meaning beyond academic significance. It is time to let our students in on the presentist secret that we all hide. We use history to situate the present in a larger narrative. Let’s teach them how to do the same.

What do you think?


Photo: Thomas King at a protest in Queen's Park for the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, and Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation Toronto, 2008. Wikipedia Commons.


Presentism and Historical Thinking

Thanks for the thoughtful blog post. I have a couple of comments that I would like to make about your post from the perspective of a history educator who has focused on historical thinking over the past few years.  

I am confused by your conception of presentism because throughout your post you describe presentism in ways that I don't think are examples of presentism. In my understanding, presentism occurs when we project or impose our present day thoughts, beliefs and values when trying to understand the thoughts and actions of historical actors in the past.

Early in the article you describe how you repeatedly commit the "sin of presentism" when relating the present to the past for students (for example, comparing the Boer War with the Afghanistan conflict).You later describe how you stress continuity while also encouraging your students to understand the immensely different contexts of 1905 and 2005. From a historical thinking perspective I don't think you have committed the sin of presentism here. Rather, you are using one of the key historical thinking concepts, continuity and change Identifying continuity and change requires that students make comparisons between some point in the past and the present to look for the aspects that are similar and the aspects that are different. You are right to suggest to your students that the times were very different in 1905 than they were in 2005, but it is also important that they can pick out what the similarities are.

Secondly, recognizing that historians interpret the past through the lens of the present and that the past cannot be reconstructed does not mean that it is ok to impose presentist views on the past. One of the most challenging tasks that historians and history students are asked to do is to try to identify and understand the different thoughts, beliefs and values that existed at the time under consideration. In historical thinking terms we call this taking historical perspectives This task involves analyzing historical evidence, the traces and accounts leftover from the past, in order to determine how the historical actors saw and thought about the events that were occurring. Of course students are going to compare the thoughts, values and worldviews of the past with today, but this does not mean that they are imposing presentist views upon the past, only that they are using the present to identify the ways in which "the past is a foreign country."     

Lastly your discussion of presentism at the end of the article is more about the historical thinking concept of historical significance ( than it is about presentism. You argue that "talking about the present when talking about the past grants significance to the field of history because it situates the contemporary lived experience into a grander, mythological story of time and space." Furthermore you state that, "Talking about the past, and encouraging students to see the present and the past as intricately connected, one unknowable without knowing the other, is one way that history can become important in how people organize their lives." It is important that students can generate and apply criteria for historical significance when studying the past. An event, person, place, or development is historically significant because they result in change for many people over a wide geographic area for a long period of time, and because they are revealing, they shed light on enduring or emerging issues in history or contemporary life. How we ascribe historical significance is intrinsically tied to the present. Stephen Harper's government spent $30 million on the War of 1812 because they felt that although it occurred two hundred years ago, it revealed something about the past that is still important to Canadians today. This does not mean that we are imposing presentism on the past, only that we are using the present to help us make meaning of the past.

Thanks again for your post and for making me think deeply about the issue of presentism in history.