The Historian as Activist: Some Thoughts

In my introductory post I mentioned how my intention for this site is to use my platform as a historian to promote a culture of life – to be both historian and activist for what matters most.

Now, combine the words “historian” and “activist” in the same sentence and you’re likely to make more than one person in the field of history blush.

“Those be murky waters,” they might caution.

And, no doubt, historians who fudge results to support a particular cause should not be taken seriously (Howard Zinn on the left and David Barton on the right both come to mind).

But there is plenty of precedent for historians using their position in society to challenge the current order. To give one recent instance, scores of American historians, including Joyce Appleby, Robert Dallek, and Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson, endorsed Barack Obama for president back in 2008 with no appreciable backlash.

Why?

Well, as Prof. Jacquelyn Hall of UNC Chapel Hill said, “As a matter of civic duty and professional survival historians must unapologetically embrace opportunities to put the past in open dialogue with the pressing needs of the present.”

Indeed, the instructional nature of the study of history is one of its basic and intrinsic benefits. In The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris relate that history can help us be more open-minded and “perhaps, rid ourselves of some of our inherent cultural provincialism.”

And, more important to the specific place where I am coming from, Christian historian John Fea states:

“I am convinced that history, as a way of thinking about the world, teaches us virtues that are absolutely essential for life in a civil society. History is the antidote to the shouting matches we call the ‘culture wars.’”

With the aforementioned truths in mind, and with vigilance about the ever-present specter of blinding bias, I will press forward in using the historical record to advocate for positions that are near and dear to my heart.

Next up: A look at the controversial Amicus Brief signed by over 400 historians in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case. When should historians take public stances on issues related to controversial policies like abortion?

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