The story has been concisely told in The Spectator by Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars. We reproduce extracts of the article by courtesy of The Spectator, and the whole article can be found at https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/how-teaching-history-became-about-the-present-not-the-past
According to the AHA itself, “As of 2019, history accounted for slightly less than 1.2 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, the lowest share in records that extend back to 1949”. Surely every professional historian worries about this picture, and who would worry more than the president of the AHA?
But this is where Professor Sweet stumbled. He suggested a reason for the decline that ran athwart the sensitivities of some of his members. He … temperately and oh-so-cautiously broached the idea that maybe historians today are trying a little too hard to shoehorn the past into the dominant cultural categories of the present. He titled his column, Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present.
To mention ‘identity politics’ without a deep bow of respect was itself a risky move … His next paragraph included a couple of sentences that landed like drone strikes on the radical left’s oil refinery. Referring to the vogue for “read[ing] the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues – race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism”, he suggested that “This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralising the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.”
Perhaps Sweet got carried away. Did he really mean that historians obsessively twisting every fact into a narrative about systemic injustice is somehow discrediting the profession? One might have read it that way.
No sooner was his essay published than the engines of outrage began pouring teleologies of indignation on the hapless Professor Sweet.
Being a man of character, Sweet did the honourable thing of publishing a grovelling apology.
“I had hoped to open a conversation on how we do history in our current politically charged environment. Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association […] I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry […] I apologise for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.”
History will survive all this, but the teaching of history in our colleges and universities? The prospects are cloudy.