David Kennedy
Professor of History, Stanford University

Re: What is the biggest problem historians face?

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It's easy to assume the past is irrelevant.

David Kennedy

David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachian Professor of History at Stanford University. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic analysis with social history and political history. Kennedy has written over ten books; his first, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), won the John Gilmary Shea Prize in 1970 and the Bancroft Prize in 1971. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) and won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his 1999 book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Other awards include the Francis Parkman Prize, the Ambassador's Prize and the California Gold Medal for Literature, all of which he received in the year 2000. Kennedy was educated at Stanford and Yale. The author of many articles, he has also penned a textbook, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, now in its thirteenth edition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


David Kennedy: I think the biggest challenge that the field of history faces going forward . . . well there are at least two of them that I can think of. One of them is the sense that because we live in a society that is so dynamic, and so fluid, and porous, and mobile, and future oriented, and in which change happens with such rapidity, that it’s an easy assumption to make that the past is irrelevant to us and that we don’t need to understand it. That’s kind of a constant, it seems to me, of being preoccupied with the importance of history in a highly dynamic society such as ours. It’s just convincing people that the subject is important at all. So that’s one challenge going forward. The second is the nature of the documentary record from which we professional historians build their accounts of the past. And it used to be . . . In fact, the further you go back in time – the time of the Egyptians, or classical Greece or what have you – the problem there is the paucity of documentation and the difficulty of wringing anything cogent or comprehensible out of the very fragmentary and small amount of evidence we have. Today we have just the opposite problem. We have so much evidence, and the historical record is so thick and weighty with electronic communication and so on and so forth, that sifting through that great Everest of documentation to come up with a coherent narrative line or analytical line is just an enormous challenge. And it’s one that’s building, you might say, almost daily and weekly as we go forward through time.

Recorded on: 7/4/07