I notice this tic most often when grading student papers, in which those under my tutelage nearly always write things like, “Ames begins his career,” rather than “Ames began.” But I’ve also seen it frequently in History Channel-type documentaries, on which the academic talking head will say, presumably to add a sense of gripping immediacy to an event that happened long ago, something along the lines of “Booth jumps onto the stage and shouts, ‘Sic semper tyrranis!'”
I have seen this mode of speaking creep into conference presentations and, yes, my own course lectures. And it’s no longer used only for sudden or discrete events, but also in statements like “after Vietnam and Watergate, Americans begin to lose confidence in their country.” This style appears to be very quickly becoming the standard way of speaking about history, and even writing about it, at least informally.
Assuming that this trend actually exists, the question is whether it is in any way significant: I mean, everyone knows you’re speaking about the past, right? So where’s the harm? I’m not sure there is any, but I’ll admit that it does bother me. I think that my problem is that, if a style that originally served to make the past more immediate has now become standard, then a) it will no longer serve the function for which it was adopted, and b) the distinction formerly made by the older formulation will become lost. Such developments would inevitably impoverish the way that we think.
At the heart of my nagging concern is the fact that students seem to write this way, not for dramatic effect, but as a matter of course. It reminds me of people learning a new foreign language, in which tense distinctions are too difficult and subtle, so everything comes out in the present tense. And I shudder to think of the day that my French or Spanish is anyone’s model for speaking about history.