The Presentism Essay

Cover of the September 2022 issue of Perspectives

This summer, James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, published an essay in the AHA’s magazine. It elicited weeks of indignation among some historians. At the end of October, The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote about the controversy. Frum described an American historical profession gripped by partisanship and chilled by political correctness. Now I’ve finally written my own analysis of the affair.

Today, in Clio and the Contemporary, I try to explain what happened, why it really happened, and why the whole thing was a missed opportunity. I hope you’ll take a look.

Thin Margins

A bearded tightrope walker carries another man high above raging water

There’s good news, in the first place. This academic year is much better than last year was at the same point. For me, anyway. And for most of my students and friends.

We may be living every day under apocalyptic headlines about the world at large, but the apocalypse isn’t happening inside my classrooms. Not this time. Not as far as I know. Though everybody has their own struggle.

With mask mandates lifted almost everywhere, newly matriculated college students now get to see each others’ faces on campus. For most students and most professors, that’s been a great thing for morale and probably, on the whole, for learning, whatever it means for physical health. (I’m not going to deny the tradeoffs—in either direction.)

But everybody’s working on thin margins. Teachers and students alike. There’s less room for error than there was at this time three years ago. We have lower reserves of energy, creativity, health, wealth, and patience.

Patience is the problem that’s really on my mind lately.


For me, the problem of patience has been brought into clearer focus by what’s happening on Twitter.

Continue reading “Thin Margins”