Stanford historians put 2021 into its historical context

Images of Current events for History 2021 Class.

Between the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S Capitol, the withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan, escalating anti-Asian violence across the country, not to mention an unrelenting global pandemic, it could be said that events of the past year are “one for the history books.”

How historians view events that defined 2021 and the present period was the topic of the fall quarter humanities course, History of 2021. Every week, nearly 140 Stanford students gathered to hear a different faculty member from the History Department relate a current affairs issue to their area of historical expertise.

“We hear a lot about living in unprecedented times. Studying history can help nuance these claims and challenge assumptions of contemporary exceptionalism,” said Fiona Griffiths, a professor of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the course’s faculty coordinator. “A historic perspective can enable or enhance critical attention to contemporary events – much of what we saw happen in the news this past year built on long-standing power dynamics, whether domestic or international, that are not always self-evident.”

Griffiths and her colleagues developed the course as a place for Stanford students to reflect on the upheavals of the past few years and to consider what set of historic circumstances stand behind them.

For example, Jonathan Gienapp showed how resistance to Electoral College reform has often been rooted in race rather than discrepancy in the size of states, and Gordon Chang explained how the current surge of anti-Asian violence in America is a long-standing pattern that goes back to the mid-19th century, when immigration from China to the U.S. began increasing.

Some lectures focused on grave humanitarian concerns, such as the detention of Uyghur Muslims in China or the difficult migration of low-wage workers across India. Other faculty showed students ways in which previous disease outbreaks – like the Black Death in Renaissance Italy and yellow fever in antebellum New Orleans – can inform our own understanding of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every single lecture in History of 2021 had an ‘aha!’ moment where, all of a sudden, a completely new vista and understanding of our present was opened for us through the speaker’s careful explication of the past,” Griffiths said.

Stanford News Service spoke to each of the faculty members involved in the teaching of the course and asked them to describe, in their own words, what a historical perspective can bring to bear on our understanding of present-day conflicts and challenges.