Historians think mostly about the past. However, our research can also shed unique perspective on how today's world came to be. Our understanding of past events allows us to discern patterns in human behavior, and to trace connections across time and space. Here several of our faculty members whose work sheds light on issues of contemporary concern explore what history teaches us about the present moment.

So much of what we read and see in the news these days—especially the ways in which refugees and migrants have been scapegoated as terrorists, unassimilable, or a drain on the economy—has been seen before in the past century. Studying the history of migration has helped me to understand some of the conditions that produce this kind of xenophobia. It is depressing to see history repeat itself, but another thing history teaches us is that things change, however slowly, even structures and identities like nation, gender, and race that we are often told are rooted in biology. I find that empowering. But it's not just that history helps us better understand the present. Sometimes the present helps us to better understand the past. We are living through one of those moments. Watching the rise of the populist right today has changed the way I think about the 1920s and '30s. I hope that my future work will continue to help us understand challenges to democracy in the past and present.

Tara Zahra, Professor of East European History

 

The concept of the Anthropocene was coined in 2000 by chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer to draw attention to a major rupture in the history of the planet. Fossil-fuel emissions from the rich economies have disrupted the relative stability of the Holocene climate. The impact of economic growth on ecosystems around the world is so great that we should begin to think of it in terms of geological force. Modern economies threaten to disrupt the basic earth-system processes that keep the planet habitable. This raises pressing questions far beyond earth-system science. How do we as historians assimilate the Anthropocene into our conceptual frameworks? If modern history is revealed to be a story of massive unintended environmental consequences, where does this leave our old narratives of progress, liberty and equality? Clearly, the Anthropocene concept nudges us in the direction of big and deep histories, embracing planetary and geological scales. But just as importantly, it also opens up new areas of research on smaller scales. What were the social, cultural and political origins of this unfolding crisis? How have different societies coped with climate change in the past? Can we draw on historical experience to imagine alternative ways of thinking about the economy? In this way, I think the Anthropocene framework, for all its troubling and difficult questions, will also be a source of deep intellectual excitement and creative ferment.

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Associate Professor of British History
and the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science