Eric Foner Talks History


Over at History News Network, Erik Moshe continues his series of interviews with historians . This time his subject is Columbia University historian Eric Foner.

Here is a taste:

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

There’s a couple of things that I often repeat to my students. Oscar Wilde, I believe, said, “The only obligation we have to history is to rewrite it,” which I think is a good one. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French historian, said something to the effect of—this is a rough translation—“the historian is the enemy of the nation.” I often ask students, what does he mean by that? “The enemy of the nation.” Does that mean we’re traitors? No, what he’s saying is nations are built on myths, historical myths, and then the historian comes along and if he’s doing his job, shatters those myths, and often that makes the historian very unpopular. People like their myths but “myth” is not a good way of understanding how the society developed to where it is today.

Another saying, this goes back to Carl Becker, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” In other words, he’s trying to tell us that history is created by the historian in a certain sense, the historical narrative is the creation of the historian. The facts of history are out there but the selection of facts and the merging of the facts into a narrative is an act of the historical imagination. It doesn’t just exist out there independently in the past.

My own saying, I don’t know if I invented this—perhaps I did—which I tell students is that “nothing is easier than finding what you are looking for.” In other words, that’s my plea to be open-minded. When you go to an archive, you have certain presuppositions but it’s very easy to find what you’re looking for and to ignore those things which don’t fit your assumptions, and you can’t do that. You have to, as they say, be open-minded enough to be willing to change your mind when you encounter countervailing evidence. Those things were on my mind because as it happens, I used to teach seminars, etc. I would start off the first session with a list of these quotations about history and ask students to discuss them and what they tell us about what we’re going to be doing that semester.

Read the entire interview here.