Brain by Brain
I believe strongly, steadfastly in the potential history has to change the world. This belief comes from two places. The first is from personal experience. My sophomore year in college, I sat in a European History class and actually felt my entire world shift as I developed a new understanding of power, hierarchy, culture and my place in it. Because it changed my world so radically, I know that it can also change things for my students, and not just those few bound for academia. I know that understanding, say, the history of labor in the US can change how you relate to your job. Understanding how ideas about race and gender have changed can make it clear that these are concepts and constructions, not essential truths, and just like all ideas, how they are understood can be changed and manipulated.
The second reason I believe in the potential history has to change the world is because I believe, perhaps as much as I believe anything, in the power of critical thinking. I believe that any field that has the power to teach its students how to think critically about the things they hear, read, see or think has the power to change the world one brain at a time. This is invaluable. This is as important as anything I can imagine doing.
As optimistic as that all is, I also believe in history's ability to help maintain the status quo. Just as I've experienced history's life-changing potential, I've watched others use it to legitimate and maintain their grasp on a world view that is invested in maintaining hierarchies, oppression, and the world as Fox News sees it. New historical insights can rock our knowledge of how the world works at its foundations, but that requires that we be unsparing and a bit merciless in what they mean about us and our daily lives.
As a result, I think it’s important that historians (or other academics) not confuse doing powerful work with activism. Having a job that I love and that makes me feel part of something important does not make me an activist. Trying to give individuals the tools to think about their world in a new way does not make me activist. Activism is about directly engaging in tactics that will have an immediate impact on a community. Teaching history is not that. It is not immediate, it is not direct, it does not guarantee me anything but personal satisfaction and a lot of grading. And hope. History guarantees that I continue to hope.
I’ve heard academics say that choosing to work at a public research institution is a sacrifice done to benefit the masses who come to state universities for an education. I think this is, quite frankly, bullshit. If we believe that participating in an educational system run by the state and affording us the opportunity to make money while setting our own schedules (to an extent), giving us health benefits, an office, summers to ourselves and the ability to pursue research topics truly interesting to us is in any way a sacrifice for those less fortunate, then we lose all sight of the systems of privilege I believe I’m teaching my students to detect. Refusing to see those systems of privilege undermines the discipline of history as I know it at its core.