February 27, 2018
Nathan Wuertenberg is an activist historian — he believes the past is relevant to the present, and that historians have an active and vital role to play in solving today’s issues.
The 2012 McDaniel alumnus and doctoral candidate at The George Washington University recently edited and contributed to “Demand the Impossible: Essays in History as Activism,” a book of essays on historical topics that lend context and encourage new approaches to issues facing the U.S. and world today. Readers will find chapters on the removal of Confederate monuments, healthcare, tax policy and renewable energy — all in depth and anchored in history.
That’s activist history — understanding the past and using that understanding to fuel solutions for the future.
The essays are expanded from work published in the online journal, “The Activist History Review (TAHR),” started by Wuertenberg and his “Demand the Impossible” co-editor and fellow G.W. doctoral candidate William Horne. They began TAHR after the 2016 election to give historians and other scholars a platform to directly and deliberately engage with current issues and events.
“We believe that the study of history has a present urgency, and that the issues we face in the modern day are rooted in the inequalities of the past,” Wuertenberg said. “Our hope is that the book can serve as a reference point for the many ways in which ‘activist history’ can be done, particularly for non-academic and undergraduate readers.”
Historians are generally misused in current debates, Wuertenberg says. They are asked to imagine how Abe Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson might do or think about what is happening today.
“It’s hypothetical. Hypotheticals can be ignored, and usually are. History has real relevance. It can’t be ignored. It is why we are the way we are,” he says. “Our job as historians isn’t to guess at what Lyndon Johnson or Teddy Roosevelt might think; our job is to explore how the eras in which they lived helped to mold the eras that followed.”
As activists and their movements have argued, Wuertenberg says American society is rife with inequalities — inequalities “finding their fullest form under the Trump administration.”
“If we hope to redress those inequalities, we have to deconstruct the power structures that sustain them, and in order to do that we have to understand how those structures were formed in the first place,” he says. In one of the chapters in “Demand the Impossible,” he added, Kathleen Brian explores the notion of “preexisting condition” as it was used in the 1800s to deny coverage to applicants with mental health issues and how that tactic continued until passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
“Anyone seeking to understand the opposition to the Affordable Care Act thus needs to understand the long process by which the inequities of historical healthcare were cemented as policy and ideology in the present day,” he says. “As historians, we hope to bring that sort of understanding to public conversations.”
A Spanish and History major in McDaniel’s honors program during his undergraduate years, Wuertenberg arrived on the Hill in 2008 with his eye on teaching History, his favorite subject in school mostly because he’s always liked a good story. He intended to study the ancient Mediterranean world, thinking it was more interesting than the American history he studied in school.
Then, Wuertenberg landed in professor Stephen Feeley’s “American War for Independence” class his first year on campus because it was the only history course he could fit into his schedule. It was more complicated than he realized and, liking “complicated,” he took another of Feeley’s classes — then another and another. Soon, Feeley was Wuertenberg’s advisor and encouraging him to take economics and sociology and political science.
“I had long assumed that those subjects had nothing to do with history, but as I took more of those courses I began drawing connections between what I was learning there and what I was learning in the history department,” he says. “Then, I started drawing connections between what I was learning in class and the activism I was engaging in on campus.”
Wuertenberg went from reading a book on race and sexuality in Feeley’s class on the antebellum South to discussing “The Feminine Mystique” in History professor Bryn Upton’s class on Cold War America. Then, he went from learning about the “second shift” that doubles women’s labor between their responsibilities at work and at home in Sociology professor Sara Raley’s class on gender to serving as a producer and director for a production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” on campus.
“I cite readings from each of those classes in my chapter for the book,” says Wuertenberg, explaining that what he learned in those classes was powerful enough to stick with him and what ultimately convinced him that history wasn’t just a bunch of good stories but a subject with relevance to his life.
“I guess what I’m saying is without McDaniel there would be no activist in my history and without activist history, I wouldn’t be a historian.”
Once he finishes his Ph.D., Wuertenberg plans to continue to serve as an activist historian.
“My hope is to serve as a historian in some public capacity, whether it be as an interpreter for a historical site or museum, as an author, or as a public speaker,” he says. “Regardless, I intend to work to amplify the voices of historians on the public stage by whatever means at my disposal.”
“Demand the Impossible: Essays in History as Activism” by Nathan Wuertenberg and William Horne is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book sellers.