There’s a very interesting conversation going on in the blogosphere about History Matters by Judith Bennet. The first installment is here. Historiann considers how the historical profession has or has not changed since women’s history was institutionalized. In particular, I find her comments about why so many people are going into 20th century history interesting. She argues that it is in part because we want a Whiggish happy ending. I would add, as well, that we want rich sources. She mentions her students getting excited when they can actually read documents written by women (in particular, they are activist documents, but as an intellectual historian, I think it is also important that there are documents). Certainly, the availability of rich documents shoved me further into the twentieth century, rather than the era when most people of African descent in America were uneducated and in bondage. (There are some rich intellectual histories for the period before the civil war, but the sources are limited).
My dissertation is primarily a tragedy…so perhaps I am not so trapped in a Whiggish view of history. I do wonder, though, how both a focus on twentieth century history and a focus on the progress that century seems to presume will affect how we research and teach history. Certainly, a century that begins (roughly) with a president declaring that the Birth of a Nation was history written in lightening and ends with an African American president will be hard to teach as anything other than a progressive line forward. But is that the best way?