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Why 2020 will go down in history

As we look back on 2020, it feels as if humanity was making history every day.

Even if you weren’t paying attention, the tidal wave of historic moment after moment is hard to ignore. It’s exhausting to try and keep up to date. Record-breaking bushfires on the east coast of Australia, a devastating ‘once in a hundred years’ pandemic, and a worldwide movement for racial equality. Not to mention the polarising US election. 2020 was one of the most eventful years in recent history, often for the wrong reasons.

So, what will future historians write in the history books about 2020?

For Deakin University history Professor David Lowe, 2020 is shaping up to be a year that gets written about in its entirety.

‘Every so often, there are individual years in history that are written about in their entirety.  I think 2020 is going to stand out as one of those years, that has books written just about it,’ Prof. Lowe.

Who decides what history is?

History hasn’t always been as far-reaching and in-depth as it is today in the twenty-first century. Prof. Lowe says the beginning of professional historical scholarship was tied to the history of individual countries before starting to branch out and seek different perspectives.

‘Years ago, historians would be writing about the story of England or the story of Germany. Historians saw themselves as telling the stories of the nations in which they worked or which they observed,’ Prof. Lowe says.

The shift in priorities came in the second half of the twentieth century as historians began to ask more targeted questions about the perspectives of groups that may have been overlooked in previous reports of historical events.

‘More recently we ask how have we omitted the role of women in our understanding of historical change? How have we not sufficiently explored the relations between the colonisers and the colonised? For those people who’ve been the subjects of Imperial rule and oppressed, often Indigenous populations, how do we recover their voices?’

These days, history is subject to rigorous peer review and scrutiny by various national and international organisations. History, or rather histories, are produced across the globe, and are much broader in focus than individual historians or governments telling stories only about nations.

History as a narrative

 The task of historians is not to keep a long, never-ending list of facts and events. Their work is about asking questions, researching and placing relevant events into a much longer narrative. Prof. Lowe says the idea of historians just writing down and recording facts and figures with no deeper meaning is a myth.

‘We have to acknowledge that it’s impossible to record everything that’s ever happened, so we’re constantly making choices about what matters to us and what doesn’t. We could declare ourselves to be unbiased and try to write a clinical form of history, but that’s a myth because we’re always filtering things according to the questions we’re answering,’ Prof. Lowe says.

‘History will always be about the interpretation of the past. It will always require us to filter facts based on what’s relevant because we are always analysing the past with a question in mind. It would be deadly dull if we didn’t.’


'History will always be about the interpretation of the past. It will always require us to filter facts based on what’s relevant because we are always analysing the past with a question in mind. It would be deadly dull if we didn't.'

Professor David Lowe,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

The wrong side of history

In recent years historians have become acutely aware of their ability to impact the course of what will later be in history books. Prof. Lowe says there has been a dramatic change in how historians see themselves and their real-world actions.

‘Historians have been pretty good at holding back and saying, our job is to interpret the past, let’s not get too close to the present. There is a real shift around the world of professional organisations, welcoming historians to be engaging in debates on public policy, challenging political views, challenging language policy, or even marching in the streets,’ Prof. Lowe says.

‘We’re seeing more historians become activists.’

‘A good example of how historians are leading some of this work is the Australian Policy and History Network, which has a mission to ensure that current policy-making is informed by understanding what has been tried before.’

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Professor David Lowe
Professor David Lowe

Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Contemporary History, Deakin University

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