The Uses Of History

The incoming head of the American Historical Association talks about drawing the right lessons from her discipline, and what people need to know about it

Q&A -- Gabrielle Spiegel


Gabrielle Spiegel feels a bit of humility when she reads the names of those who have been president of the American Historical Association: names like Henry Adams, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

"What am I doing in there?" wonders Speigel, who will assume the presidency of one of the nation's oldest academic institutions on Jan. 1.

Spiegel does have something in common with Wilson - both got their doctorates at the Johns Hopkins University. Unlike Wilson, Spiegel came back. Now chair of the history department at Hopkins, Spiegel returned to the Homewood campus in 1993 after two decades at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The association she will head was founded in 1884 and chartered by Congress. Headquartered in Washington, it has 14,000 members and concerns itself with the teaching and study of history from elementary school to the nation's bookstores to the loftiest reaches of the ivory tower.

"It really is an advocate for history in the nation's capital," Spiegel says.

A specialist in the history of medieval France, Spiegel received her undergraduate degree in 1964 from Bryn Mawr College and her Hopkins doctorate a decade later. Her appreciation of American history comes in part, she says, from her own experience, having been born into a Belgian family who were refugees from World War II in Europe.

"Although I was born in the United States, I first went to school not speaking a word of English, only French," she says. "Now I am the president of the American Historical Association. There is something really poignant about that for me. I don't know many countries where that could happen with quite the ease that it does here." What are the current challenges facing your profession?

One of the things that is happening is that because we are now living in an enormously globalized world, we are becoming aware of the kinds of courses we need to offer. We are trying to incorporate the fact of globalization, go back and take a look at its roots. So there is a lot of work being done on colonialization and decolonialization and post-colonialization and diasporas and immigration.

The younger generation understands this. The rising generation is very aware that we are living in this incredibly complex world and that they have to see themselves in relation to that world in a way that was not really required a generation or two ago.

So they have demanded to learn Chinese, or to understand Chinese history or East Asian history, or Islamic history. There is a huge sea change going on and it really coming from below, from students who are beginning to enter the profession who will change the overall professional profile, make it less centered on Western Europe and, possibly, even the United States, though United States history will remain a very major part of the profession. It is our history. But we will begin to do it in new ways, relating the United States to the world, looking at how we manage our empire, or what passes for an empire. Politicians certainly try to use history to back their positions. Are you glad when that happens, or does it make you cringe?

I am glad when it happens, but I prefer it be used correctly. The current situation in Iraq is a very good example of what happens when you go into a situation without real historical understanding. Most of what has happened there was quite predictable; in fact, it was predicted. But we went into it focusing on geopolitical problems without understanding that there would be many things going on on the ground that we would not be able to control. An understanding of history would have helped.

One of the things the American Historical Association has is an offshoot called the National Historical Center, which offers congressional briefings, basically to staff people in Congress, that provide historical background on current issues and legislation. I think that's a good idea. But they say that history is always written by the winners. Doesn't that make it difficult to derive the right lessons from it?

History is actually not always written by the winners. I think that it is often the losers who write it because they feel the need to justify themselves, to claim a kind of ideological legitimacy. That is one of the great motives for doing history.

Think about Southern history in America. That was impelled by a desire to understand their own past as losers in the Civil War. That loss was actually a great generator of history, a way to finally vindicate themselves.

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