5 The Stakes of Historical Scholarship
One last point before you get started doing history on your own. Getting the process right—learning how to read, research, and write as historians do—is essential as historians think and work in a manner unique to our discipline. Above all, historians weigh the specific context—the impact of new ideas, the influence of a cultural milieu, of the pressures of a unique geography, the crisis brought on by economic change—when explaining why past events occurred as they did. Rather than relying on trans-historical or unchanging notions about human nature or economic theory, historians believe that each event happened within a unique set of factors. They try to assess which elements of a society’s culture or economy (or myriad other elements) had the greatest impact on the individuals involved. New historical interpretations have helped beleaguered groups gain awareness of a past community and a better understanding of their own identity; likewise, good history has aided policymakers in drafting ideas about how they might address social problems. Clearly getting it wrong has an impact as well, leading to misunderstandings about the past and fights over primacy of interest.
Interacting with the public
Much of your focus as a history major is on academic history–reading historical monographs, analyzing primary sources, learning the narrative of events that led to a war or new invention or a major social shift. Too much time focusing on the work of professional historians might tempt you to think that historians just do history for other historians and so doing bad history will only affect a small group. But that is simply not true. There are several ways historians interact with the public at large. For example:
In history classes
While it is much easier to appreciate the necessity of, say, medical research in our daily lives, the reality is that historical scholarship is just as important because it is foundational to individuals’ identities, worldviews, and the collective consciousness of larger groups. Crucially, individuals’ worldviews inform their political opinions and choices; the consequence of such decisions, especially in democratic republics, is the adoption and promulgation of policies, ranging from domestic issues to foreign policy. Getting the story and analysis right is, therefore, a massive responsibility. Perhaps the most important “public” which historians engage are their students. Most state and private universities require some type of history class for graduation, and historical surveys tend to garner the highest enrollments. These surveys are useful because they offer both a long-term and broad perspective to students. To carry all of this off, however, historians must be master synthesizers, integrating economic, political, social, and cultural histories into the classroom. At the same time they must be specialists, since they are also expected to perform their own research (contributing to our larger store of knowledge) while familiarizing themselves with the major primary and secondary sources in their area of expertise.
Upon first blush, specialization may seem needlessly obscure and, admittedly, sometimes the purveyors of such knowledge can come off as pedantic. Specialization, however, serves an important societal purpose. Most importantly, the insights and facts established by specialized monographs are the foundation for what students ultimately end up reading in their textbooks. By amassing a number of these monographs we are able to offer specific facts and craft larger narratives about certain issues. Historians are sometimes called upon to testify in court when context is needed trying a case, and their scholarship can also become central to a written court brief. Sometimes their expert knowledge can make the difference as in the recent SCOTUS decision Obergefell v. Hodges. The court’s majority decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that social and legal aspects of marriage have changed over time, and to buttress this point he cited amicus briefs submitted by the two most important historical organizations in the U.S.: The American Historical Association and The Organization of American Historians. Additionally, lawmakers and executives at all levels of governance often consult historians when trying to understand specialized topics, or when they are wrestling with how to combat long-standing issues.
the internet (Social media, podcasts, etc.)
One of the gratifying aspects of becoming a historian is that you will over time begin to piece together your own worldview and opinions – all of which will continue to evolve. And, since historical training promotes specialization and persuasive argumentation, historians are well-positioned to extend those arguments to the broader public. While some historians subscribe to the notion that their job is to produce scholarship and then allow it to diffuse to the public via incorporation into textbooks and curricula, it seems fewer and fewer historians believe in such traditional notions. Over the last few years with the explosion of social media, blogs, and podcasts, historians have seized upon the opportunities inherent in these platforms. So, while many rightly decry “fake news” stories spread on social media, historians and other academics are busy doing their best to flood newspapers, the Twittersphere, blogs, and the airwaves/podwaves with expert opinions.
The list of new sites and podcasts is truly expansive, but one stands out. The Washington Post, realizing that people were thirsting for expert opinions in the wake of the 2016 election, hired a couple of historians to launch the blog “Made By History,” which solicits thoughtful op-ed pieces written by historians. They started in 2017 and just expanded their staff in 2019. Another important tool that historians have utilized recently is the vaunted Twitter thread. Since so many primary sources are freely available online and Twitter also allows you to add photos of documents, many historians have used Twitter to try to educate or correct popular misconceptions. Efforts by historians have been crucial to correcting the media and helping to foster informed debate. Recently, one popular historian went on NPR’s morning show to say that in her research she found no evidence that women used contraception or abortion services in the nineteenth century, and Lauren MacIvor Thompson, a specialist in female reproductive rights, responded with a Twitter thread and several links to point out how laws, such as the Comstock Law of 1873, made it impossible for women to speak forthrightly about these issues so euphemisms had to be employed. MacIvor Thompson’s thread went viral and NPR quickly posted a correction. MacIvor Thompson’s expertise was quickly recognized, and she was then asked for an interview by The Atlantic for a piece on suffragists and the birth control issue.
Why Historical Methods Are Important
Okay, so what if historians interact with the public in a variety of ways, some seen while others largely unseen, if doing history well takes practice and training then the public at large won’t be able to tell if you do bad history, right? Well no. Consider the cases below of people who played fast and loose with the facts or were lazy in their contextualization.
Case 1: Naomi Wolf (not a historian, but with a PhD)
And here is a case that shows why the historical method is very important. What happens when someone calls out your facts and methods on air? Be sure to watch the embedded video in the first link.
Yelena Dzhanova, The Cut, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong”
and the follow-up: New York Times, “Her book in limbo, Naomi Wolf fights back”
Case 2: David McCullough and The Pioneers
What happens when your peers call “bias” and “whitewashing” of history and suggest that you are promoting a historical fallacy?
Rebecca Onion, “No Man’s Land: Review of David McCullough’s The Pioneers” in Slate
and Andrew Wehrman’s Twitter thread on McCullough
History is in fact everywhere, because everything has a history. But not all history-based productions are equal. Professional scholars are not the only ones who like to claim the mantle of “historian.” Amateur historians, journalists, politicians, political pundits, and filmmakers also publish/produce works of history of varying sophistication. In this book, you’ll learn about the standards of the scholarly discipline of history in the hopes that you’ll become an advocate of history that follows guidelines. The stakes are high, and it’s not easy. But this book will help you find the way.