The Responsibilities of History (and Historians)

By September 1, 2010

JI bloggers invest significant amounts of time and effort in this blog, and this commitment becomes quite evident through the internal debates that sometimes occur behind the scenes as we discuss the future and purpose of this ever-changing form of new media in which we have become involved. Today we invite you behind the scenes to illustrate one of the great debates among historians today. In part, the discussions developed as many of us commented on Max’s excellent post on the proposed New York City mosque and community center, the debate about building it so close to Ground Zero, and how Mormons should react based on their shared history of religious persecution. Max adeptly historicized the issue of Mormons and the mosque in an effort to turn the overwhelming and sometimes baffling tide of Mormon opinion against its construction.

This issue came front and center to the blog, again, when one of our bloggers emailed the rest of us about the facebook group, “Mormons Who Support a Mosque Near Ground Zero,” and asked us whether it would be appropriate for us to write a post commending the group to our readers in the same we that we often publicize conferences on the scholarly study of Mormonism or whether we should simply link to the group on our sidebar.  A lengthy discussion of at least twenty-five responses ensued. The crux of the argument did not involve whether the majority of our bloggers politically supported the cause; but instead, whether such outright political statements coincided with the overall mission of the Juvenile Instructor blog. Someone pointed out that we have run several politically-minded posts in the past such as my report on the TA strike at the University of Illinois, David’s classic “BYU Religion Made Me P*ke,” and Elizabeth’s call for signatures of support for the Women’s Research Institute at BYU. In response, another colleague argued that in each of these cases the issue in question directly affected those interested in the academic study of History. If we decided to run a post simply supporting the facebook group, would it set a precedent of political activism for the blog that might distract it from its original mission and drag it into the mud-slinging world of political polemics?

As the discussion continued, it became evident that our email debate on whether the blog should post support for a facebook group was touching similar questions floating around the academy regarding the political responsibilities of historians. As political pundits such as Glenn Beck and Keith Obermann bend and stretch the realms of historical credulity both to entertain and to push forward their own political agendas, what is our responsibility as historians and historically informed persons to push back and correct these half-truths and de-contextualizations? Why do we study the past? Should historians utilize their craft to advance personal politics and benefit the communities in which they live? What good is historical inquiry if it cannot inform action in the present? Do we do our students a disservice by bringing politics into the classroom?

Almost any historian will agree that knowledge about the past powerfully influences the present and the future. Take the example of Islam and the way it is perceived. If historians ignore the centuries of peace and prosperity fostered by Islamic peoples and regimes throughout the Middle East and India during the Middle Ages when inequality, hunger, and fear reigned throughout much of Europe, then it is much easier to paint Islam as a pathogenic faith. In many ways the European Renaissance emerged as contact with Islamic powers reconnected the Christian world with classical traditions that Muslim philosophers, doctors, and scientists had guarded and advanced. I would argue that current strains of radical Islam actually gained power as means to resist the violence and dehumanization of Western imperialism. It seems sad that such a noble history should be whitewashed through current demonized portrayals of devoted Muslims. It should not matter whether Barack Obama is a Muslim or not–the Constitution guarantees that there will be no religious test for holding office, but the cultural label of “Muslim” through the trauma of September 11 and subsequent wars has become a code for an enemy of the United States. As a label, it has been divorced from any real religious connotation in the minds of many. This has happened before to the Japanese, the Vietnamese, the Germans, the Chinese, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and African Americans.

Whether we visualize the past as a foreign place, a source of comfort, an uncontrollable fascination, or a tutorial for the present, we must decide what to do with the knowledge we hold about the past. The stakes are high since the stories we tell about ourselves often define us as a people. Here at the Juvenile Instructor blog we encourage all to learn about the past and act politically as your conscience might lead you.

Notice that this post uses the example of the Mosque in Manhattan merely as an entrance point for examining the relationship between historical inquiry and activism. My thoughts on the history of the Islam are only given as an example of the power that narrative holds for helping us understand the world in which we live. We have already held a rather lengthy debate about the nature of the Islamic religion and the historical precedents for possible Mormon support of a mosque and community center near the former site of the September 11, 2001 attack. I, and the rest of the bloggers here at JI, reserve the right to moderate and/or delete any comments that do not deal specifically with the connection between history and political activism.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. In the end, would it matter how well one knows history? Would not one still bend it to their own needs, or to their own propaganda? I, for one, believe wholeheartedly that those who question Obama’s religion are fully aware that he is a Christian, as an example. Yet the purpose of distorting his religion, whether true or not, is based on advancing their goal of taking him down.

    Comment by Dan — September 1, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  2. I welcome the involvement of historians in political questions — historians have insights that are lacking in other fields. For the same reason I welcome the involvement of Mormons in political questions — we bring a perspective that is unique and needed.

    My personal preference is that politics be kept in the background everywhere, because few people can separate politics from partisanship. I like the weight of the evidence (e.g., historical analysis, or moral teaching) to carry the day rather than a blatant “you must support/oppose this issue if you are a genuine Mormon/historian/whatever.” In very real ways that is exactly what I practice with my journalism: I don’t ever say “If you are a Utahn, you must of necessity also be X.” Rather, I tell stories that illustrate my vision of what being a Utahn means and expect that to be more powerful than the editorializing (or even cartooning-in-words) that masquerades as journalism by some colleagues. In your case, Joel, your lines contrasting Muslim civilization with Europe under Christianity during the medieval period makes a more powerful statement to people like me than any blatant political haranguing ever could. Thanks for that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 1, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

  3. Glenn Beck has two “n’s.” (The extra “n” is for “nutty”!) “Barack Obama” only has one “r,” so no extra letter to tease about on that one. I think this was a clever-sneaky way of linking to the Facebook group, btw!

    All ribbing aside, thanks for the post, it is an interesting question to think about, how to draw that line between analyzing/reporting and activism/advocating.

    Comment by BHodges — September 1, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  4. Joel, this is great. I’m glad—and everyone else should be, too—that you volunteered to write this so that someone like me didn’t have to. I admit that I’m probably not entirely consistent on this issue—sometimes favoring the overt use of historical scholarship to advocate for certain issues while other times preferring not to—but I do think there is value in always considering these questions. Thanks again.

    Comment by Christopher — September 1, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

  5. BHodges,

    Thanks for the spelling help. I’ll correct the original post.

    Comment by Joel — September 1, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  6. Thanks, Joel. I like Patty Limerick’s thoughts on the importance of historians being public intellectuals, bringing their expertise into dialogue with current issues. I think you’ve raised important questions here regarding the role of the blog and its authors in these debates, although I’m still working out for myself where the line is.

    Comment by David G. — September 1, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

  7. For what’s worth, I read JI for well written History, not current issues. I read other blogs for that.

    Comment by Bob — September 1, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  8. I’m afraid I’m quite skeptical that knowledge of history results in more enlightened politics. I think historians have a responsibility to do good history, and that individuals who study history will no doubt have their views of contemporary issues informed by their studies. If ongoing arguments distort historical facts, then historians have a duty to step in, but the study of history does not necessarily provide the historian with a privileged position from which to comment on any given contemporary issue. (See also: literature, economics, political science, physics, etc.)

    The record of historians, like other academics, in supporting the cause of peace and justice, rather than the local dictatorship, was not very good during the 20th century, unfortunately. The devil too can cite history. To return to the example you mention, a historian could as easily cite Constantinople of 1453 or Vienna of 1526 as the “real” Islam, rather than 14th-century Cordoba.

    So if you all want to promote the petition, great! I agree with you, singularly and collectively. But the difficulty lies in finding the unanimity required for that step, which is an inherent problem for group blogs, not necessarily a consequence of the historian’s craft.

    (By the way, I’m also skeptical that Mormon opinion concerning that construction project in NYC is any different than American public opinion. That’s appalling enough already, but I don’t have the impression that there’s any particularly Mormon animosity towards it. But if anyone has solid evidence otherwise, I’d be interested to hear of it.)

    Comment by Jonathan Green — September 1, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

  9. Ha, good reminder Bob.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 1, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

  10. I think my favorite quote (and for that matter, series of essays) comes from the JAH’s special issue a couple of years ago putting some historical perspective on Hurricane Katrina. That issue surprised and impressed me because the event had “just happened” but historians felt a responsibility to take some scholarly ownership of its narrative and future interpretation and that struck me not so much as political but as a demonstration of commitment to engagement in the world we now live in.

    Anyway, the quote is from More and Powell’s introductory essay, “Through the Eyes of Katrina: The Past As Prologue?”

    As informed citizens who study the past, historians have a unique opportunity, and thus a particular obligation, to make the present comprehensible in terms of what has gone before. Like any occurrence in the here and now, Hurricane Katrina derives its meaning partly from contemporary circumstances and partly from perceptions that are shaped by accumulated experience, or what is sometimes called historical memory. The relationship between Katrina and its historical context is, of course, dynamic and reciprocal. As historians have long recognized, current events?especially traumatic shocks that disrupt the status quo?alter our perceptions of the past. In the shadow of human catastrophes, scholars are pushed to formulate new questions and to revisit old orthodoxies as they probe for fresh meaning in what Robert Coles has described as ?that flow of human affairs that gets called history.?

    That first sentence has become rather a mantra with me.

    Comment by jeans — September 2, 2010 @ 5:10 am

  11. As I am just passing through, I hope I’m not reiterating a common statement, but I am of the opinion that there is no way to separate an academic individual from their personal political and moral views without creating a false perspective that rings false to even casual observers. However, I assert than this website, or any real academic forum or institution putting forward an image to foster learning must remain structured, but free of such personal biases, even when representative of a majority, because it is that same inhumanly objective facade that legitimizes the searching done under its name. The pundits you mention, and the self-serving agendas of certain historians, seem to me to be their right, if not always right, but the nature of an academic group, lost as it is on most current editorialized news networks, is not to push its agenda, no matter how moral from their perspective, if it wants to retain credibility as an organization that leads to real learning.

    Comment by Adam — September 3, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

  12. We’re becoming cynical, I think, if we are feeling like familiarity with history can’t help us here and now. Although Santayana’s statement about forgetting and repeating history is worn pretty thin by now, it’s still a truism. Certainly historians as historians do have an asset that can (ought) to be shared in contemporary discussions. The challenge is how to impart historical awareness without making history serve personal politics. Yes, the devil can tell history too, but a balanced/fair telling of history, as disciplined historians are expected to narrate, needn’t be devilish. To my way of thinking, historians can and should make this kind of contribution. What happens with the historical data thereafter is irrelevant; what matters to the fair-minded historian (who subverts his politics to his discipline) is that critical insights have been introduced to the dialogue. I acknowledge that this is, of course, complicated. Truly people cannot divorce their scholarship from their sense of what ought to be done; we know that very well. But by virtue of their intellectual training historians (see also: literary critics, economists, political scientists, physicists, etc.) are better able than any to make the attempt, and I think it’s a responsibility that they assume. The logistical questions – how this knowledge is to be distributed; how it can be insulated from politicizing influence; how historians can distinguish themselves from other pundits – are thorny, but worthy ones.

    Comment by Ryan T — September 3, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

  13. […] the past and the present. (See here, here, here, and here, for example. Also, and especially, here, and here) A recent and significant contribution to these debates comes from Harvard historian Jill […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Historical Fundamentalism and Mormon History — November 1, 2010 @ 8:14 am


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