The Windowless Room of the Present: Rereading David Harlan

Abstract This essay unearths the guiding question of David Harlan’s 1997 book, The Degradation of American History. While most commentators have focused their attention on Harlan’s biting criticism of the historical profession, this essay argues that Harlan’s diatribe against historical scholarship pursued “for its own sake” stems from a deep concern about the moral education of citizens in an age that François Hartog and others typify as “presentist.” Although Harlan’s remedies against presentism are found wanting, the essay argues that the question raised in The Degradation of American History is a relevant, timely, and still unresolved one, now even more than at the time of the book’s original publication.