Although as I explained yesterday I feel somewhat alienated from my discipline, there are things that historians bring to the table that no one else does. This is by no means the dernier cri–it’s a document that I invite you all to critique and add to. It’s about time for me to add another page to this blog for disheartened historians young and old to remind us of what it is we can do and why what we do is important. Let’s call it “Why Historians Matter” although again, that’s just a suggestion. I’m certainly open to catchier titles–and ones that don’t appear to plagiarize Judith Bennett quite so much!
So far, I’ve tried to focus on the key elements of historical research (collection, analysis, and evaluation) and one aspect of teaching history (citizenship).
Why Historians Matter
- Archives Matter: Historians are trained in collecting information. In an era in which American leadership is either agnostic or openly contemptuous of factual information, historians must play an important role in preserving documents and digital media in all forms on behalf of present and future archives. Historians train and serve as archivists in public and private institutions that will need our advice and guidance.
- Analysis Matters: Historians are experts in evaluating and analyzing information and finding meaningful patterns. Archives are only truly useful when historians analyze their holdings and make meaning from them.
- Empiricism Matters: For better or worse, the historical instinct is to collect as many examples of the phenomena or issues we seek to understand. “Why stop at four examples when forty will do?,” is our motto. Historians believe that because historical sources are always flawed and biased, so it’s better practice to look at as many as possible and weigh them one against another to test their validity before drawing definitive conclusions about the past.
- Citizenship Matters: Most American historians in the U.S. teach a version of a survey in American history that was probably initially envisioned as a supplement to the civic education of young American citizens and–ideally–voters. But citizenship is too important to be left to the U.S. historians only. We all collect, analyze, and evaluate (or rank) information, whatever our temporal or regional expertise as historians. In our increasingly interconnected world, all historians–whether they work inside or outside of classrooms–can help students and the wider public understand and navigate their political and informational landscapes more effectively by sharing the skills and instincts described above.
What do you think? What am I missing? Can I organize this better? As I re-read this list, I see my own intellectual habit of looking for connections rather than disruptions across borders and boundaries emerge once again. Some habits of the mind are impossible to overcome, I guess! But heck, I’m a lumper. Splitters and their critiques are most welcome here!