Connecting Past to Present

All history is contemporary history.

August 4, 2021

The American Economic Institute denounces “The growing threat of historical presentism.” CBC radio decries “The allure and dangers of presentism.” International Publishers denounces presentism as a “scourge” and a “trap.”

Don’t judge our ancestors’ actions by today’s standards, we’re reminded.

Presentism -- the tendency to interpret the past in terms of present-day concerns and values -- has become, like critical race theory, a boogeyman, a specter that, we’re told, willfully or carelessly misrepresents the past.

Presentism, it’s said, is anachronistic; it inevitably simplifies and distorts the pat to serve present-day needs and purposes.

So let me say that there is real value in viewing history through the lens of the present. Not only does a present-minded approach alert us to topics and issues previously overlooked or discounted -- race, gender, sexuality, power, privilege, identity and inequality -- it also shows helps explain how an understanding of the past can shed light on today’s realities.

Let me offer an example. As every educated person no doubt knows, the author of Alice in Wonderland was also a photographer who produced thousands of pictures, many of which show girls dressed in nightgowns, fancy dresses and theatrical costumes, some partially undressed, and others naked.

I doubt anyone can view Charles Dodgson's photographs today without a Pavlov's dog-like reaction: that these images raise the specter of pedophilia and child pornography.

Some scholars have argued that these images simply reflect the Victorian cult of childhood innocence, while others respond like Chico Marx: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Obviously, eroticism suffuses Dodgson’s photographs, such observers say, revealing an alarmingly warped psyche.

A new book by the National Gallery of Art curator Diane Waggoner, Lewis Carroll's Photography and Modern Childhood, offers an alternate interpretation. While acknowledging that present-day observers, highly attentive to child abuse and power inequalities, can see things that their Victorian counterparts did not, Dodgson’s photographs are best understood not as the idiosyncratic expressions of an eccentric, but, rather, in terms of evolving middle-class cultural norms.

Waggoner’s interartistic approach allows us to see how Dodgson’s photographs reflect views of girlhood that were also expressed in the Victorian theater, literature and painting, especially the canvases produced by the pre-Raphaelites.

Waggoner shares a perspective that James Kincaid advanced in his 1992 book Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, which revealed that high Victorian culture juggled two conflicting images of children -- as symbols of purity, spontaneity and asexual innocence, but also as figures of fantasy, obsession and suppressed desire.

Kincaid subsequently showed, in a 1998 book entitled Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, that contemporary American popular culture also harbors a profound ambivalence toward children, simultaneously idealizing, fetishizing and eroticizing children, even as it largely overlooks the child abuse that takes the form of poverty, neglect, abandonment, household instability, inadequate nutrition and profoundly unequal educational opportunities.

“All history is contemporary history,” the Italian philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce declared. We can’t pretend that our view of the past isn’t influenced by today’s circumstances. What we judge important about the past important necessarily reflects what’s significant in our own eyes. In that sense, the ideal of historical objectivity, of seeing the past “as it was,” is unattainable.

But to say that all history is present-minded is not to say that it can’t offer a critical vantage point on our own time. As the great British historian David Armitage and the French classicist François Hartog have observed, historical perspective can free us from “the tyranny of the present” -- the generational chauvinism that the eminent Yale historian David Brion Davis decried: the belief that we are the most moral and knowledgeable people who ever lived.

For all the criticisms leveled at psychoanalysis in recent years, Freud captured a basic truth: that the residues of the past color the present and that only by subjecting that history to critical scrutiny can we liberate ourselves from its tentacles. Our social structure, our system of values, our mode of production, after all, are products of history.

Only by wrestling with the past’s demons can we move forward.

In his recent defense of presentism, Armitage refers to Cicero’s view of history’s value, which is too often forgotten: history as life’s teacher, Historia magistra vitae est. History, from this perspective, has a duty to speak to the present, and historians are remiss when they fails to do this.

Although present-day knowledge can distort and deform our understanding of the past, it can also provide clarity and focus.

Several years ago, I conducted research on what I call “the new disorders of childhood.” These are childhood disabilities that only came to public and professional attention since the late 19th century. Unlike measles or mumps, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, childhood obesity, peanut allergies and certain developmental and learning disabilities (such as aphasia and dysphagia, apraxia and dyspraxia, dyslexia), have histories that we can recover and reconstruct.

Precisely because these disabilities have a known history, I was prompted to pose several historical questions:

  • Why were these disabilities only identified at a particular moment in time?
  • Did these disabilities always exist, perhaps under another label, or were they genuinely novel?
  • Did something occur that made these disabilities more common or more visible?
  • Is it possible that these disabilities are, in some sense, manifestations of childhood distress, which surfaces in distinctive ways at various points in time, and, therefore, might these disabilities be understood as expressions or projections of certain underlying disturbances in the nature of childhood?

I do not claim to generate authoritative answers to those questions, but my research did lead me to pose some very tentative and highly general conclusions:

  • The 20th-century United States seems to be particularly susceptible to medicalizing or psychologizing certain kinds of disorders that other societies view from very different perspectives. Thus, in a number of other societies, like Sweden, dyslexia is regarded primarily as a social and educational rather than a medical problem, prompting very different forms of treatment.
  • The United States seems to be especially unwilling to explore possible links between the more recently identified disorders and shifts that have occurred in diet, food processing, environmental chemicals, child development, schooling or parental behavior. There’s a tendency to dismiss investigations along those lines as expressions of paranoia or as a form of victim blaming. As a result, we know very little about the contextual factors that might cause, contribute to or aggravate these disorders.
  • International comparisons and contrasts aren't pursued as much as they should be. Why is the incidence of these “new” disorders apparently far higher in the United States than elsewhere? Are the differences real or are they an artifact or byproduct of how disabilities are measured, conditions are defined and information is collected and reported?

In very tentatively advancing these conclusions, I make no claims that my understanding or insights can do any more than supplement the research of medical and psychological specialists. All I hope to do is contribute to ongoing conversations by encouraging other researchers to broaden the lens through which we view these disorders.

So, how, then, might this discussion contribute to how we might think about teaching? It underscores the value of:

1. Historicity

Historical perspective is far too valuable to be monopolized by historians. Armitage rightly decries the “rampant ahistoricism” and the “temporal foreshortening” that pervades all too many disciplines. Every topic benefits from being viewed through a historical lens. Historicity not only reveals the significance of context and of historical processes, but the fact that every concept, institution, custom, tradition and mode of expression has a history.

2. Multiperspectivity

Multiple and diverse perspectives can contribute to a richer, more complex and comprehensive event, phenomenon or form of behavior. Even when a topic is medical, scientific or technical, cultural, humanistic and social scientific perspectives can provide essential context and offer alternate or supplemental interpretations.

3. Multidisciplinarity

Because each discipline offers its own characteristic methods, analytical approaches and interpretive strategies, combining and comparing disciplinary perspectives and methodologies helps expose the multifaceted nature of a particular topic or issue. Our students would benefit enormously from juxtaposing a variety of disciplinary perspectives on a common topic, showing how each discipline sheds its light on a particular facet.

In Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning, Ken Bain and Marsha Marshall Bain call on faculty members to create classes, grounded in the learning sciences and pedagogical research, that build a “natural critical learning environment” that fosters intrinsic motivation, self-directed learning and self-reflective reasoning.

These are courses in which students, the authors write, “learn to think critically, which means to reason from evidence and concepts, examine the quality of their own thinking, make crucial decisions, and defend them rationally and articulately.”

The authors go on to say, “The most effective super courses form around questions that are already on the minds of students, big inquiries that encompass far more than a single discipline and often appeal to a desire to help other people.

That’s good advice. Let’s create multidisciplinary course clusters and bridging-disciplines programs to tackle the biggest issues of our own time and that prepare students for environments that value multidisciplinary perspectives.

And let present-minded history be part of the mix.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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