Re: What is the biggest problem historians face?

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

It's easy to assume the past is irrelevant.

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