Does history matter, Part II? What historians bring to the table

From the frying pan into the fire!

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

27 thoughts on “Does history matter, Part II? What historians bring to the table

  1. Pingback: Does history matter? Part I | Historiann

  2. On the “four and/(or) forty” rule, definitely. I’m still waiting for my first coveted reviewer comment, on a book or even from a manuscript reviewer, along the lines of “do we really need to know what color Magellan’s socks were on the day when he skittered past Guam on the way to Manilla in the 1520s?” Followed by the sometimes compensatory “despite its obvious flaws, this book/manuscript deserves a place…” Some of it is just archival narcissism: if I found it, you should have to hear about it, and it’s fair for readers to object to the egregious practice of that at any place in the publishing cycle. But it really does, or at least can, offset the “big argument from ambiguous allusion in one place syndrome,” in which the author can forget how tenuous the claim was when it was first entered, ten pages back.

    The only thing missing is 36 more bullet points, each one as on-point as these four! Organization can be the adversary to insight, early on, at least.


  3. Retired history prof, still women’s history advocate, here. I agree with all your comments in these two columns, but especially #4 today. I am appalled, and have been for decades, at the lack of history and civics knowledge of todays college grads, and that includes Princeton,Rutgers, Seton Hall grads in my family. Perhaps that tells a little bit of the story of how we got to our present executive branch. It’s obvious that many in the present exec branch knows little history or civics.i fear for our republic.
    I enjoy your columns, have for about 3-4 yrs since I found you. I’m sure you’ve answered this question, but please explain to me the woman-as-sex-object pictures that decorate your blog. I know you must have an interesting explanation for them.


    • Thanks, teachjean.

      I don’t have a really good explanation for the Gil Elvgren cowgirls. I started using them because I found them really colorful, beautiful, and eye-catching, and they helped me play up the cowgirl I play on the blog. Some readers have objected–esp. as I recall some transwomen who felt they were exclusionary in their idealized feminine forms. I see them as more idealized beyond mortal women–i.e., they’re imaginary, which is what cowgirls were. Not that there weren’t women working in cattle & the hide trade–there have been from the Comanches through to the present–but because there was no such identity as “cowgirl” outside of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Hollywood.

      There’s a great book on Elvgren & his method as a commercial artist. It shows very vividly how he photographed real, gorgeous women in the poses you’ll see in his paintings, but he always had to exaggerate/perfect them beyond belief in the paintings. So the images are all idealized copies of idealized images of women.

      My sense is that most of my female feminist readers get the playful way I mean them, and the straight men who read this blog (feminist or not) may enjoy them for reasons they don’t trouble me with. I have worried in the past few years about their unbearable whiteness–that is, there’s no such thing as an idealized Latina or African American cowgirl pinup, because what makes the women here so idealized is their very whiteness. So I’m always re-evaluating this.


  4. Although this is not exclusive to historians, I think that what we offer is complexity. When people ask “Why did this event happen?” there are vested interests in society (Kant’s “kindly guardians”?) who are eager to provide a simplistic narrative – “It happened because of x” – that serves as a justification for some policy of course of action. Historians understand that events are over-determined. We have to peel back the layers of political, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to that event. (I really like Roger Chartier’s approach in “The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution.”) Literary scholars do this, too, but I think (from a historian’s perspective) they often play fast and loose with the associations and connections they make between ideas. As a scholar of German orientalism, I often see literary scholars drawing conclusions based on German literary sources that cannot be justified from a close, careful consideration of the specific historical context in which a text was written.

    This may pull together points 2-4 above, because I think these skills are critical for an informed citizenry that can defend itself from its would-be masters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You and *I* might think that complexity is a good thing, but in terms of public engagement and outreach, I don’t know if it’s a selling point. (I’m not saying we shouldn’t embrace complexity–we should, and clearly we do! But I wonder if that’s best left backstage of the story.) Remember, Harry Truman wanted a one-handed economist? There’s a reason no one has a historian in their kitchen cabinet anymore. (Did Arthur Schlesinger Jr. count as a historian? Not sure–we could disagree.)

      See Northern Barbarian’s comment below. Maybe I could work up a number on the importance of nuance and appreciating difference? What do you think?


    • I was about to chime in with something about history education instilling an appreciation for nuance and ambiguity that is much-needed amongst our citizenry. I’m not sure whether I’m reiterating your excellent point about complexity. To the issue of public engagement, I think that insisting that students recognize and grapple with complexity in the history classroom is one of the most important ways to develop a more healthy and rational political culture.

      Alas, in the face of hyper-competitive college-admissions mania and the overwhelming influence of the Advanced Placement program in high school history, both time and respect for patient consideration of the complex nature of historical events and interpretations have been sacrificed on the crass altars of superficial “rigor” and shallow achievement.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wouldn’t assume the poor state of history education generally that you do, FJ. From what I’ve seen in my town, the social studies & history teachers are very dedicated and smart. They’re introducing complexity & encouraging independent analysis–now, whether students are interested or supported in picking up the other end of the rope is a different question.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As a supplement to “empiricism matters” (yes!) and some of the commenters’ points above, I would add “the particulars matter.” We collect 40 examples of something because they are all somewhat different, and those differences can determine how an event unfolds. In this age of grand theorizing historians make a very important contribution when we point out that accident, personality, the emotions of the moment, and good ol’ stupidity have as much power in shaping history as the great forces of economics or power structures. If Tsar Nicholas II had not been such an idiot Russia would still likely have suffered a great deal, but it would have suffered differently.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes to all of the above, and how about “Theory Matters”? I know that my advisor visibly cringed when I mentioned theory in my dissertation proposal in the late 1990s and at the defense in the early 2000s, but analysis is always rooted in an epistemology whether its acknowledged or not. Historians are not necessarily great theoretical system builders (except Our Blessed Emmanuel Wallerstein). But Historians are eclectic appropriators of other disciplines’ theoretical frameworks. We are like crows who scavenge shiny objects that we keep as long as they sustain our fancy and discard when no longer useful.

    I think this practical approach to theoretical frameworks is a strength of the discipline. We subject these theories to empirical testing and abuse never intended by their home disciplines. Out of this comes new perspectives and possibilities for both history and the other discipline. I think Foucault is the great example of this phenomenon. Historians took his ideas like discipline and the panopticon but applied them in all kinds of wildly different contexts and time periods. The same was true of the Habermasian Public Sphere: The public sphere was so used and abused by historians it came out of the 1990s as a solidly thrashed dodecahedron.


  7. Thanks for taking up the issue of history’s and historians’ relevance—it’s something I’ve fretted about a number of times. I agree completely and almost instinctively (which might point to a different problem) with your points and those made in the comments above. My concern is: what unique expertise/contribution do historians bring to the table.

    We historians don’t have a monopoly on analysis, empiricism, or citizenship. Experts in many other disciplines, perhaps most clearly the various sciences, can make equally strong claims to analysis, empiricism, and citizenship (how many times have I heard scientists rightly point out that knowledge of science is necessary to have an engaged and informed liberal democracy, or something to that effect?). And with the growth of MLIS programs as a pathway to archival, collections, and library positions, history will likely lose its central place in educating archivists and guiding archives.

    How can we highlight the unique expertise historians bring to the table? And how can we make the strongest case for that form of expertise?

    Does my concern make sense? Or am I just being thick?

    Liked by 1 person

    • How much do we need to? I am a historical archeologist, meaning I do more history than archaeology, when you look at how I spend my research hours and where I turn for theory, and I am a little tired of hearing that “real” archeologists are made by digging and “real” historians are made by…I don’t know, history departments? As far as I can see, neither has a monopoly on the qualities in this post. I don’t understand why disciplinary exceptionalism should come at the cost of appreciating the content of scholarship wherever it happens. Why should history have to be better than all other fields to matter?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Darin, thanks for commenting. I certainly agree that we don’t have a disciplinary monopoly on the contributions I list here–but I think they’re central to what we do and how we might make an argument for what we contribute to the world.

      I guess I was looking to start a conversation about what all historians do and why it matters. I didn’t want to go down the road of specific knowledge or subject-area expertise, because then it becomes a conversation about how some historians are more important than others. (I.E. modern history more “useful” than premodern history; American history more “useful” in the current U.S. political moment than other national histories; political and economic history more “useful,” etc.)

      Maybe the conversation on complexity that Northern Barbarian introduced (& others have picked up) is a useful intervention that might help address your questions?

      Maybe I need to think harder about why empiricism, archives, & analysis of historical materials specifically is important. But here’s where I’m afraid of getting a little too “out there” and mystical. I believe that having an appreciation for and and understanding of history is one of the things that separates us from other animals, but I don’t want to be too species-ist, because separating ourselves “from the animals” has not always been a noble undertaking.

      And I also don’t believe that “history teaches us” any one damn thing. It informs us, for sure, if we’re dong it right, but it’s not a great blueprint for the future IMHO.


  8. I love William Sewell’s take on this in the first chapter of “The Logics of History”: the most distinctive things historians bring to the table are a rigorous commitment to the seemingly simple, commonsense idea that chronology matters to causality and a conviction that narrative is a method. In terms of Historiann’s four above, this means that historians have different views of empiricism and make different contributions to citizenship than other disciplines.


  9. I recently snuck into history via religious studies, so I am never sure of getting the terminology right, but jumping off of “archives” and “empiricism,” I would say that “documentation matters.” Having documentation matters, and it’s important how we document, why we document, whom we document, as well as who can be trusted to document.

    I would also say: other places and peoples and maybe especially other languages matter. I work on a part of the world that my field has neglected because of the ignorance of the languages spoken there. There is no better way into another reality than another language. (Okay, I may be romanticizing a bit there.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agree 100% with the importance of studying outside of one’s national history (and/or language!) Language is just about the best intellectual tour guide there is, IMHO.


  10. Maybe this is a subset/ connection to the “complexity” discussion, but context matters. We don’t see facts separate from other facts. [Part of my frustration with the discipline right now is that we’ve got ourselves into smaller and smaller worlds. And our analysis is rich because we go deep, but it sometimes misses connections that explain a lot more.]


  11. Very interesting discussion– and I agree with much of what is said, especially liking the addition of attention to complexity and the nuances of different cases.
    But let’s add another element: historians are also often able to connect discussions of pretty much anything to some sort of stakes. We don’t simply study what happened: we explain why it mattered.
    We study agency: how people change lives and realities, and how they struggle, fail, and improvise.
    Outsiders may mock an elaborate discussion of, say, witchcraft in Scotland, or clothing in Congo. But when written as history, such studies connect vivid experience with high stakes like state legitimacy or the invention of new economic models.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve got a dual background in history and archives, and am also trained in dh. The library science background definitely makes me a better researcher, but I think more importantly, it has allowed me to diversify my background. I teach. I research and publish. But having this broad background absolutely has given me the chance to go beyond traditional historian work – for instance, working on an IMLS-funded project to build a geospatial interface for digital collections. My knowledge of metadata, primary source analysis, programming, and research design from my combined backgrounds all work together. And so I am “useful” in a range of non-traditional settings.

    I do think we have to be careful not to dismiss what archivists do, though. Especially on the preservation end. I’ve talked to more than a few people who were shocked to learn that I had to learn about research ethics, organic chemistry (for preservation), copyright law, budgeting, and a host of other things during library school. And many of them have second subject degrees these days. There are collections that have undoubtedly been mismanaged, but I think many people would be surprised to see the work that can go into the processing of larger and high-profile collections.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Jessica. I agree with you that the archival side is really important, AND that historians don’t have all the tools required. Great point about the training required–there’s a reason it’s called Library Science, and not Library Arts, although of course a combination of the skills inform the best work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s probably worth noting that the library field (whether archives or elsewhere) has become increasingly technical. So much so that I’ve started teaching coding in my DH courses, and encouraging aspiring librarian/archivist and curatorial people to take some computer science, and also a chemistry course. (It can be a safety thing too – for instance, literacy in chemistry teaches one why you don’t store nitrate negatives in warm temperatures, or attempt to open a daguerreotype case without protection.)


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