Rearrange the Past

One of the biggest benefits of teaching AP Research is the excuse of spending time on JSTOR reading old Journal of American History articles. An early search of mine was for Richard White articles. His 1999 article, “The Nationalization of Nature,” includes one of my favorite descriptions of the work historians do:

In posing the issue within environmental history as one of transnational versus national studies in different periods, I seek to emphasize the anachronistic nature of history itself. I am using terms – national, global, environmental- that themselves have histories; they have taken on both existence and meaning over time. I am reading modern meanings back onto a world that did not originally contain them. I emphasize my use of such terms to stress both the complexity of the historian’s choice and the historian’s freedom. We constantly impose categories on the past that the people of the past neither knew nor used, even as we seek to reflect accurately how people in the past understood their world. We sometimes seem to live in the paradoxical hope that concepts we use to rearrange the past will help us to mold -to arrange- the future.

If our students could explain the significance of this passage, I feel like I would have done my job. Also, what amazing prose.

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