What Historians Do

One of my favorite things about spring semester is that I get to teach a section of our department’s capstone course, HIS499 Senior Seminar. It’s fun in part because it’s so unlike anything else I teach — as close to a graduate seminar as I’m going to (or would like to) get as a professor and chair of a history department that awards no degree higher than the bachelor’s. The principal goal of the course is for each student to produce a work of original historical research, which leaves me acting more like an editor than anything else. And because students can pick any topic that interests them (and on which they can find sufficient sources), I end up learning a great deal myself. This spring’s set of projects ranges from Ghana in the Cold War to the history of Wisconsin breweries to the origins of Bethel’s nursing department.

Class meets only once a week, on Monday nights, and at least once or twice a month I simply use that time to meet individually with students to touch base on their projects. But we also gather in seminar format to give each other feedback and to discuss the philosophy and methodology of history.

Now that students are a month into their projects and (I hope!) feeling pretty good about their topic choice, this past Monday I decided to give them a night off from talking about their research and asked them a rather broad question:

Herodotus and Thucydides
The Greek fathers of history - Wikimedia

What is history?

At this point, these eight students have each had at least 10-12 college history courses and read dozens of books and articles by professional historians. More than they’d probably admit, they’re functioning as heirs of Herodotus and Thucydides themselves. So I was curious to hear how they understood the discipline: its goals, its methods, how it’s similar to and different from other fields…

To get the conversation started, I asked them to meditate on the question for a few minutes, then craft a definition of what historians do — in twenty-five words or less.

I left them alone with their thoughts, came back fifteen minutes later… and had one of the best Senior Seminar discussions in nearly ten years of teaching the course. I had the students refine their definitions and add a couple of paragraphs of explanation as their seminar journal entry for the week; if you’re curious to see what they came up with, we’ll be publishing a few of those entries on our department blog tomorrow and into next week.

But here are a few of the things we talked about:

1. Method

In my opening instructions, I had joked that “Historians study the past” was probably too cursory a definition, but I was still glad to see that everyone devoted at least part of their definition to a brief summary of historical methodology.

Gaddis, Landscape of HistoryAt least one student liked the verb “investigate” and likened historical inquiry to that of the hard sciences — she saw herself as collecting, cataloguing, and analyzing data. (We’ll get into standards of verifiability and falsifiability soon.) Others wrote about historians discerning patterns. That led into a nice discussion of the nature of historical evidence and how it’s gathered. Considering how fragmentary it is (and that historians don’t have the luxury of experimenting with time and space), most students seemed taken with my analogy (borrowed from many, I’m sure, but most directly John Lewis Gaddis) to paleontology: both historians and paleontologists have only a small percentage of fossilized remains (one student described historical evidence as “physical and oral remains”), and so must draw on their expertise and imagination to fill in the gaps. Which led other students to describe the task of history as “representing” (unintentionally evoking another Gaddis analogy, between history and cartography) and “interpreting” the past (the latter word inspiring one student to compare historians to actors or singers, and another to Bible translators). And by this point, we were far along the path to seeing history as one of the arts.

2. Application

More on that in a moment, but it was interesting to find that only one of the eight students stopped with method. Everyone else chose to add a second clause to their definition, describing how historians apply their knowledge for the greater good. (The minority of one warned that, while historians might engage in applying their knowledge, seeing that as an essential function risked pushing historians further and further away from the objective search for truth and into realms where they might be tempted to sacrifice veracity in order to be useful, relevant, politically correct, etc.)

What kind of application? Though only a couple of these students have talked to me about the possibility of teaching at any level, several emphasized the role of historian as educator and perceived that historical study helped cultivate the kind of useful, employer-desired skills (reading, research, critical thinking, writing) that we liberal arts professors tend to emphasize in conversations with the nervous parents of prospective students. Others stressed different kinds of “educational” functions: that historians help societies to learn from their mistakes and avoid making them again (Would that historians had that kind of influence! In any case, count me among the skeptics of the “learn lessons” approach to history), or that they teach us more about the human condition. Several students — perhaps reflecting the prominent role I gave public history in one of my fall courses, or the work that some of our majors have done in the Bethel archives — saw historians as called to preserve the identity or “heritage” of nations or other groups.

To these, I added a couple more suggestions — adapted from world historian Peter Stearns’ essay asking, “Why Study History?” First, Stearns’ notion that “History Contributes to Moral Understanding”:

Peter Stearns
Peter Stearns - Creative Commons (David Shankbone)

History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but in real, historical circumstances can provide inspiration. “History teaching by example” is one phrase that describes this use of a study of the past—a study not only of certifiable heroes, the great men and women of history who successfully worked through moral dilemmas, but also of more ordinary people who provide lessons in courage, diligence, or constructive protest.

We’ll come back to this in April, when we spend three or four weeks considering what (if anything) our religious faith and practice have to do with the study of history. I’ll be curious to see if my students, as professing Christians, are more likely than historians in general (many of whom are dubious about engaging in moral contemplation — let alone moral judgment — as part of their work) to seek “inspiration” in the past or to find themselves testing their “moral sense[s]” via their research.

Second, Stearns reminds us of a virtue of history that’s all too easy to lose sight of:

History well told is beautiful. Many of the historians who most appeal to the general reading public know the importance of dramatic and skillful writing—as well as of accuracy. Biography and military history appeal in part because of the tales they contain. History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places. The same aesthetic and humanistic goals inspire people to immerse themselves in efforts to reconstruct quite remote pasts, far removed from immediate, present-day utility. Exploring what historians sometimes call the “pastness of the past”—the ways people in distant ages constructed their lives—involves a sense of beauty and excitement, and ultimately another perspective on human life and society.

If not on board with history being beautiful and exciting, I think most of my students at least buy into the notion that history is rooted in story-telling. A young man who had spent last fall studying in the Global South observed that non-Western societies don’t always draw the distinction between “history” and “story” that we moderns do. So I’ll be curious to see if their final papers lean more towards the genre of “narrative” than “analytic history” (as Gordon Wood has described the categories — somewhat artificially, since his own work testifies to the permeable nature of any supposed barrier between the “analytic” and the “narrative”).


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