Three historians on the future of history

In the United States and around the world, we’re debating what our history is, what it means, and how to share it. “We have to somehow acknowledge that it can take hundreds of years to discover the meaning of something, just as if an event happens in our own life, it can take us years for us to process that event,” says David Young Kim, an associate professor of history of art in the School of Arts & Sciences. “I just love that quote from William Faulkner when he says, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’”

Patchwork quilt in assembly.
Image: Vanessa Lovegrove/OMNIA

How does history affect our lives? How can we make it come alive? What does it mean to rewrite history? Three historians share their thoughts.

Reexamining our history through the lens of the present is not new, says Sophia Rosenfeld, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History. “I had excellent teachers in high school and college who made it clear that history was a good way of thinking about the past, but also a good way of thinking about the present,” she says. “It gave you a perspective on where you’re situated in the world and what other possibilities are out there.”

More than that, she says, history has always been written in some way to serve the present, whether it’s as entertainment, moral didacticism, or political persuasion. “We’re not finished writing it not just because the past keeps getting longer,” she explains. “It’s also because the present keeps changing. We ask new questions about the past that are often related to what’s happening in the world today.”

Rosenfeld studies the underlying assumptions that have grounded democracy since the 1650s. In her most recent book, “Democracy and Truth: A Short History,” she took what she’d learned about the connections between truth and democracy historically to evaluate their bearing on modern-day politics. 

Heather Andrea Williams, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought, is the author of “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom”; “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery”; and “American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction.” Her goal is to get, and give, “a feel of what things were like, what people were like, where they’re standing. I want my students to dig in and be fascinated by the study of history. And if by chance that helps them to understand something that happens later on, great.”

A professor of Africana studies and the graduate and undergraduate chair of that department, Williams often takes her students to visit plantations (this semester they’re going virtually). “You can see how the white people’s house is elevated. It’s on this hill. You see the cabins where the enslaved people lived. And you can see that up at the big house, they can look down to where the enslaved people were. You see the distance between the cabins and the house so that you know that there may have been moments of privacy, of secrecy. But the overseers are close by. So, we’re layering that onto what we’re reading.”

David Young Kim is interested in the language of art and in how images complicate the historical sources we have. “I think it’s dangerous to use works of art as illustrations of history,” he says. “They can actually create a meaning that can be in opposition to what we know.” Kim’s objects of study—art from the Italian Renaissance—can themselves be sources, but must be approached with care. 

Like all historians, Kim must set the contextual stage for his subject. Today’s college students, from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds, don’t necessarily know the Bible and Greco-Roman mythology that influenced Renaissance art. “It forces you as a professor to explain certain assumptions about Western and Renaissance culture that we often take for granted,” he says. “Why is the Virgin dressed in this particular color? Or why was this painting round?”

“It’s almost as though art history is about learning how to speak a variety of historical languages,” Kim says. “I think that’s what I find very interesting. You’re speaking the language of the past. And sometimes, in the classroom, you’re speaking the language of the present, hoping to teach students how to think according to terms of the past.”

Read more at OMNIA.