Monday, October 30, 2006

The historian's job

Every Thursday I have a historical methodology seminar-like class. So far, we have only examined medieval historiography, but we always end up discussing contemporary issues concerning the writing of history. I came out of the most recent discussion feeling somewhat pessimistic about the prospective course of my life. We delved into some excellent issues and had some very enriching discussions about the historian’s supposed purpose. One point stuck out in my mind, and is the basis for this post: if history is the pursuit of Truth about the past, isn’t the historian’s job inherently antisocial? As it goes without saying that no historian – or indeed anyone – can ever reach an objective truth about anything, it is, fundamentally, the historian’s duty to continuously destroy old myths by replacing them with new ones that supposedly offer a ‘better’ interpretation of the past. Do I really want to be a historian if my job is, when it comes down to it, to make people less comfortable with the accepted views of the past? Good historians have to be anarchists. Do I want to be an anarchist?

I understand that in many cases clarifying the past for people is useful for their own edification. But it’s difficult to reconcile a mentality that it’s all for the greater good without feeling like it’s just being nitpicky. I can certainly see how some view the quest for historical truths as being an antisocial activity. One example to support this immediately comes to my mind: my neighbors from across the street in South Hadley visited Scotland a few years ago. When they came back, they told my family all about it, and how they especially liked Stirling, where they saw William Wallace’s sword! I almost said ‘well, that isn’t really his sword...’ but thought the better of it. Millions of people have seen that sword and believe it to be authentic – is it my job to tell them it’s not? Should it matter? I suppose that that’s a rather benign example, because were it widely publicized that the sword on display at the Wallace Monument isn’t actually Braveheart’s, I don’t think it would radically change anyone’s worldview. But you get my point. A slightly more potent example is that Churchill never actually delivered some of his most famous speeches during the ‘dark days’ of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. An actor was hired to impersonate him on the radio, possibly because he was drunk. Should everyone know that? Does it matter?

What is the purpose of history, really?


Ben Lebeaux said...

Ben, good post, and important questions. Though I haven't finished it yet, I think there's something of an answer in either the first chapter or introduction or preface to Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." I think that you've displayed discresion in avoiding the nit-picky parts of historicizing, but as history flows into a much grander narrative (Zinn examined the narrative of human progress and plays it off against who we've progressed over), we have to be careful to not let history dictate itself to us, to not allow it to reify certain myths. No, it's not entirely important that people thought they saw Wallace's sword but didn't. But it is important that people think of Thanksgiving as a fair representation of the colonists' dealings with Native Americans, or that people think that we dropped the Atomic Bomb on Japan to save American lives (when in fact it might have been more to do with our then allies in Russia).

The nit-picky part of history that you're legitimately weary of is the uninteresting, unimportant tip or extreme of something that, I think, that's incredibly necessary: by 'nit-picking', or interrogating as we used to say in my department, the grander myths of history we become more aware of peresisting narratives that we've been trained to believe. Consequently, we're better able to un-think those narratives as well as recognize the facts and people that history (or the current 'story-tellers') have written out of our historical record (as well as begin speculating why they have have consciously done so).

As far as the purpose of history: at one level, it's the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. But by nit-picking at it, we might begin to consider why we've told certain stories and why we don't tell others. And what it means to pick and choose.

josef kijewski said...

To: instruct; mislead; confuse; illuminate; draw parallels; destroy parallels; make fun of its players; create good citizens; to create single quotation marks around the phrase 'good citizens; and a million other things, simply depending on one's intent.

To Ben - and this is a completely random aside - I think Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday and something to be cherished... the helping of strangers, the communal breaking of bread, etc. It's the only holiday I've ever much cared for. Do people really think of Thanksgiving as being a 'fair representation' of "colonists dealings with Native Americans"? (They very well might! I have a different perspective than most, I suppose, growing up on a reservation; the distinction between such a promising start and what followed has always seemed obvious, and tragic.)

Columbus Day, on the other hand... there's a day to pull out the big guns on.

Also, I agree with the rest of what you write. I don't think it's impossible to parse something apart for validity and truth and still retain value in the overall myth or narrative, should, in fact, we find value there at all. (This has, for one example, been the most fruitful approach I've found to take in reading and studying the Bible).

And being able to do so is incredibly important for all the reasons of which you speak, and by god you phrase it magnificantly in your last paragraph.

Anonymous said...


The original entry recalls to me something that, on the surface, seems very different: art philosophy. The big question in some philosophies of art is: why does the "original" matter at all? I remember taking a course on it, and we had a guest visit who is an expert at creating faux art, fully painted, say, to look exactly like the original. In the hypothetical case where the two -are- exactly identical, there is nevertheless a vast difference between the perceived value of the two "identical" pieces of art. If Van Gogh or Monet's or Picasso's hand touched a brush that touched the art piece, if one of these famous minds conceived the piece you hold... then it's more valuable. Is this merely due to the "fame" aspect -- the same tendency to want a picture next to Jonny Depp or Penelope Cruz instead of any other attractive person? I don't know as I'd answer this question with any finality, but I thought it seemed a relevant parallel to the musings about Wallace's "real" sword.

And Sir Lebeaux, a propos to your response, your last paragraph makes me think a great deal about cognitive theory. You simply MUST read Daniel Dennett one day. He had a lot to say about consciousness as a delusion created by our own interior monologue. Well, not quite, but it sounds fun to phrase it that way.

Ben Lebeaux said...

Josef, sadly I do think that Thanksgiving, wonderful and turkey-filled as it admitedly is, is the stand in representation of colonsits' interactions with the native Americans. Speaking as someone who didn't grow up on a reservation, I remember learning more about breaking bread with Squanto, putting on Thanksgiving pagents, making turkies by tracing our hands, than about how Columbus packed off/killed/raped/stole from. I think it's become really the ONLY representation we have till at least middle school at the best, high school at the worst (everything else becomes tragically downplayed). And by that time I believe that the myth has calcified within us (thereby allowing for the persistance of Columbus Day, without nearly enough outrage, as you rightly brought up).

And Diana, yes, I have to read Dennet. He sounds very, very interesting.

josef said...

Ben -

I remember being on a class trip to DC when I was in high school. Our initial bus-tour around DC almost turned into a riot at one point.

The tourguide pointed out the statue of Columbus in front of Union Station--the one with Indians kneeling to his either side and, if I remember correctly, in shackles (though I might be mistaken on this last point); she said that it symbolized the 'harmony and coming-together between the white man and Native Americans.'

How thoughtful of her to use the politically correct term for such a horriffically incorrect and thus offensive interpretation.

We lost it. I'm sure you understand why.

I suppose my own situation growing up meant that I can appreciate the myth/idea behind Thanksgiving as an ideal, one which was hardly followed-through on. That's not something I can really do with Columbus, as the positive value of his myth (courage in exploring the unknown) is one that can be filled a million other ways and one so completely contradicted and overwhelmed by the way he ended up handling that unknown.

I understand people for whom both holidays are simply too tainted; but Thanksgiving, and what it means to me--strangers as family, and literally giving thanks for what we have and can supply to one another--is more valuable to me than the behaviors of those who acted later on.