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Imagemap: link to IRC Credits

The Difficulty of Interpreting Contemporary History

[picture of the discussion group]

Miller: These are the headlines. They're raw data. And it's an incomplete set of data at that. I asked our team of historians to interpret, to shed some light on these events. At first, they resisted.

Masur: How do you write about a period through which you lived? Because that shapes our perspective as to what is important, what isn't important, our own experiences. And the recent past isn't just writing about the 1990s or the 1980s. Some of us have memories of the '70s, the '60s, and the '50s.

Well, that's half a century of history about which we have personal memories. Our own identities were shaped by these memories. Well, when we go to choose what's important, how much are we drawn to those not because of our detached role as historians, but because we're engaged -- we're engaged personally with the past. It raises questions about the tension between the role as historian and the role as participant.

Miller : Oh, historians have always had agendas, they've always had emotional and ideological agendas....

[picture of Professor Masur]

Masur: I'm not talking about it as an agenda in a negative sense. I'm talking about it as a set of issues that becomes raised, that comes to the very question of a tendency to identify things as being important, not as a predictive value, but which later down the line you're not going to feel are important.

And why are you going to predict them or predict that they're important? Because you lived through them, you experienced them, right? We all would have thought that Newt Gingrich and the Republican ascendancy would have been this momentous moment, and look how quickly it passed. At the moment, living through it, we would have offered one interpretation. Two years later, we would have offered another.

Maier: And the other thing is that when you work from newspapers, the period you live through, every day has an equal headline. When you're a historian, you shuffle those in some way. You rank them. Some you forget, some you emphasize. That's difficult to do until you study a period that has not only a past, but a future.

Miller: A period that not only has a past, but a future. It's an interesting idea. We can't yet see the future of the last 25 years of the century. But we do have some perspective on the first 75 years.

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