Lynn Hunt on Why History Matters Now More Than Ever: An Enthusiastically Biased Report

by Dr. Gregory Smith

When I volunteered to write a brief report on Lynn Hunt’s keynote address for the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, I knew enough to expect a tour de force. (Anyone who has encountered Professor Hunt’s work has learned to expect tours de force.) But it was only in the days leading up to the conference, when I finally got a chance to finish her excellent book History: Why It Matters (Polity Press, 2018), that I started to suspect her talk might upend my other expectations.

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Frankly, I was expecting a jeremiad. When I see a title like “Why History Matters” I expect to hear something like the voice of one crying in the wilderness, telling us to take courage in the face of (1) a gathering storm where our words will likely be ignored, effaced, or taken out of context; and/or (2) a world of declining history enrollments, where people equate a liberal arts degree with un(der)employment or “useless” skills, no matter how often and loudly we cite decisive evidence to the contrary.

Fortunately for those of us present and for readers of this post, Professor Hunt’s address was emphatically not a jeremiad. Instead she argued persuasively that historians make a demonstrable difference, that the world (our world) is in no more danger of ending than it was twenty or thirty or fifty years ago, and that we should not give up on interpretation or epistemological self-scrutiny in the face of “alternative facts.” “Why History Matters Now More Than Ever” also featured a brilliant thumbnail sketch of postmodern theory – the kind of perfectly distilled summary that makes graduate students wonder why their teachers didn’t just say so in the first place —- and closed with an exemplary Q and A. Current and future professionals take note: this is how to do it.

On the major point, Professor Hunt reminded us that history matters because ordinary people listen and respond to how historians interpret the past. No, seriously, they really do! The last few decades have witnessed wide-ranging and non-trivial changes to the way Civil War history is taught in American schools, for example, even in those states where “revisionist” history textbooks were most resisted in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] There are many reasons not to be satisfied with the status quo, but in the midst of culture wars and literal wars it is easy to forget that professional historians have made a lasting difference. Crucial claims that used to be “controversial,” such as the role of slavery as primary cause of the Civil War, have become commonplace. Inclined to focus on how long it took, historians often underplay the more important fact that it happened in the first place.

In the aftermath (or in the midst) of “post-truth,” historians might also be tempted to give up on the critical self-evaluation that has always been a feature of the best sort of history. After all, isn’t postmodernism at least partially to blame for the rise of alternative facts, echo chambers, and the legitimizing of conspiracy theory?[2] Some might go farther still and eschew interpretation (at least temporarily) in favor of establishing “what actually happened”: historians as fact-checkers awarding Pinocchios. To all this Professor Hunt says “no.” It is the wrong response, and a self-defeating one. Facts are important, and historians know what to do to establish and debate the basic evidence. But interpretation remains central to the enterprise. Particular interpretations can be more or less persuasive than others, and we can still have meaningful debates that are not reducible to power-plays, aesthetic taste, or individual whim.

Another cause for cheer, and re-evaluation: Professor Hunt observed that public interest in history is as high as it has ever been. History museums, sites, parks, television – all are being consumed in numbers that present a bracing contrast to recent declines in history majors. Among other lessons is the fact that people who want history will get it from somewhere: professional historians ought to be playing an instrumental role in answering the demand.

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

The author and guest speaker, Dr Lynn Hunt

I, for one, was convinced on almost every point. (I am not sure I quite share Professor Hunt’s long and broadly optimistic view on social media. She thinks it need not be any more negatively disruptive than other revolutions in the history of human communication, whereas I suspect that the invention of writing and printing are as different as they are similar to the sudden concentration of knowledge, power, wealth, and proprietary algorithms in the hands of an extraordinarily small set of people in California and Washington.)

But the best final summary and recommendation I can make, for those who were present and those who couldn’t make the talk, is to read History: Why It Matters. To list all the things I love about this book would be to write another blog post (or ten), but I cannot endorse heartily enough its observations about the universality of history-writing (pp. 48–52), its warning that “one day our histories will look just as incomplete” as the older work whose limitations we so often (and rightly) challenge (p. 55), its warnings against “presentism” (p. 111), and a set of almost-final words that reflect my own understanding and experience of history as well as anything I have ever read: “What do we learn from the past? For me, it is above all else respect for those who came before us” (p. 112).

  1. Jacey Fortin, “Texas Students Will Now Learn That Slavery Was ‘Central’ to the Civil War,” New York Times, November 21, 2018.

  2. Among many possibilities, see Matt McManus, “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” Quillette, May 17, 2018; Carole Cadwalladr, “Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’,” The Guardian, February 12, 2017; and a rejoinder by Aaron Hanlon, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.” Washington Post, August 31, 2018.