Sunday, September 13, 2015

What Do Historians Actually Do?

I recently read an article that clarified my thinking about what historians do and what we have to offer to the public. Much of this had been swirling around my brain in muddled forms. Then I read Sam Wineburg's article "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts," and immediately asked, "where have you been all my life?"

The public thinks that historians are people who know lots of facts about the past. But this is only incidentally true. We do learn a lot  about the past, but this is almost in passing--we learn those things while on our way to the more interesting stuff. What historians bring to the table is not an unusually large compendium of dates and trivia, but a way of thinking. Historical thought is an unnatural act.

Wineburg argues that every encounter with the past confronts us with "the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity to and feelings of distance from the people we seek to understand." When we become too comfortable with one side or the other we make the past too simple. For Wineburg, "mature historical thought" is found in the capacity to "navigate the jagged landscape of history, to traverse the terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity with and distance from the past."

Wineburg argues that we especially need to encounter the unfamiliar past, for "It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddles or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth. The sustained encounter with this less familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race."

Wineburg explores this with three fascinating case studies of people doing historical tasks. In the first case, when a 17-year old student in an AP class read primary source documents that did not make sense to him, he incorporated them into his preexisting view of the world. As a result he learned almost nothing from them. He didn't understand the people in the documents, so he made them into his own image. In the second case, an elementary school principal participated in a workshop where she was thrilled by the primary source documents she read about women in the early Republic. At the end of the workshop participants had the chance to rewrite a portion of a textbook using the new knowledge they had gained from the primary sources. She believed the textbook slighted women's activity and she was excited to craft a new narrative, but this collided with her preexisting belief that history was meant to be dispassionate and objective. In the end, she wrote a new narrative that was as bloodless and boring as the one she replaced. In the third case, a professional historian, Bob Alston, grappled with primary source documents from an area outside his field of expertise. What separated him from the first two cases was his constant questioning. His notes were sprinkled with phrases like, "I don't know...I'm not quite sure...I don't know enough about..." The professional historian exhibited a willingness to be unsettled by what he read, to be confused, to be changed as a result of his encounter with the past rather than making the past conform to his preconceived notions.

Wineburg comments, "His questions dwell in the gap between his present knowledge and the circumstances of the past. Alston is an expert to be sure, but he is an expert in a very different sense from the way that term is typically used. His expertise lies not in his sweeping knowledge of this topic but in his ability to pick himself up after a tumble, to get a fix on what he does not know, and to generate a road map to guide his new learning. He is an expert at cultivating puzzlement."

Historians as a group are probably as likely as anybody else to be arrogant in their daily lives. But in this specific sense historians cultivate a radical humility that is unsettling to the public. Wineburg continues: "Alston's reading shows a humility before the narrowness of our contemporary experience and an openness before the expanse of the history of the species. It grants people in the past the benefit of the doubt by casting doubt on our ability to know them as easily as we know ourselves. This does not mean that we cannot judge the past -- we can't help making judgments. But it does mean that we must not rush to judgment. Other readers used these documents to confirm their prior beliefs. They encountered the past here and labeled it. Alston encountered the past and learned from it."

This is what I tried to tell my students even before I had read this article. History--if they will let it--can teach them humility. But in my limited teaching thus far, I have struggled to get students to be interested in understanding historical people. It is much easier to cast people in the past as heroes or villains and be done with it. I find that students tend to think that slaveholders, for example, were really bad people. Now, I'm ok with that I guess, provided the students are also assuming they themselves are bad. But all too often the public wants cheap morality tales--people to imitate or people to condemn. Either way, we use history to make ourselves feel better.

In contrast, thinking historically compels us to realize that what it means to be human is much less settled than we tend to assume in our daily lives. We begin to see that people have ordered and understood their worlds in extraordinarily diverse ways, and that they were, alike with us, human beings. This is the jagged terrain between familiarity and distance. It would do Americans some good to consider what it might mean to be human in a world without nationalism, capitalism, Christianity, Western individualism, race, and more. Many millions of people have lived in those worlds.

If historians are cultivating intellectual humility, if we chuckle at the quaint notion that objectivity is possible, why does our public posture often look so different? Ours is often a curmudgeonly presence as we make an appearance only to denounce the latest historically inaccurate statement from a public figure (or worse, from school textbooks!). We claim to be practitioners of a humbling discipline, but then we act as arbiters of what is true or not true in history. This is because what historians are asking of history and what the public is often asking are completely different things.

Historians ask questions like, how did people in the past understand themselves and their place in the world? What made sense to them? Why did they do the things that they did? The public is more likely to ask, "Our ancestors were good people, weren't they?"

Historians see a phenomenon and ask, "Hey, where did that come from?" The public might look at the same phenomenon and say, "Isn't this the best way to order society?" or, "Isn't this natural?"

Historians and the public often talk past each other because the questions the public asks are often not, in the end, historical questions at all. Take the Civil War for example. Historians are engaged in a lot of interesting debates about it. Then the public comes along and says, "Isn't it true that slavery really wasn't at the center of the war?" As a historical question it's absurd and we're right to say so, but that's also why we end up appearing so different from our self-image as humble explorers of history. Perhaps the key is for us to recognize that the slavery question is not primarily a historical question. It is instead a variant on, "Weren't my ancestors good people?" or "Isn't my country good?"

I'm not sure historians can offer a satisfactory response to those kinds of questions. I imagine my public history colleagues have more developed thoughts on this. It's not fair for us to expect the public to "get" what it is we do. How can we instead, in at least small ways, bring historical thinking to the public, inviting them to explore? That is a far better outcome than us acting as figures of authority presiding over the past.

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