Know ye not that we shall judge politicians? (New Cliopatria post)

Just a note to say that, as promised, I have a new, and lengthy, essay up on Cliopatria asking what, exactly, the world wants its historians to do at this time of, well, global, difficulty. More than you might expect, less than we do, and not what we want to do, is roughly my conclusion. You may like to read…

4 responses to “Know ye not that we shall judge politicians? (New Cliopatria post)

  1. Cullen Chandler

    I read this yesterday, and it got me thinking. As far as what we academic historians are v. what the public wants us to be, we probably wear two hats. Think of a chemistry professor. That person wants to teach others how to do chemistry, including “knowing their stuff” but also thinking critically about other chemists’ work. But our chemistry prof also knows tons more than the average bear about the subject and so is occasionally called on for advice and expert opinions. Are historians not the same? Certainly we want people to learn history, both as a body of knowledge and a way of thinking. Certainly we want people to know that the body of knowledge is just about ever-changing because of academic findings and debates. Certainly we want to encourage people to think critically. But we must also realize that, given our jobs, we know more than the general public about history and so must be ready to step up and offer expert opinion. Put differently: I might know a little something about how the human body works, but I’m going to see my physician if anything serious is wrong with me. The general public likewise might know a little history, but they are going to ask us, the professional historians, to help figure things out.

    And while I’m here, I’m not exactly sure it’s every academic’s job to find fault with every other academic. If so, how would we every know anything? Are you going to dispute Copernicus now, or disblieve in Charlemagne? Surely it is our job as academics to critically evaluate what others in our field say, and then accept some of it. I think we do each other and our profession a bit of a disservice if we see ourselves as always engaged in a zero-sum game, always trying to find something wrong with each other, rather than trying to help each other solve the problems before us.

    As to what the media mean when they say “history will judge” or some such, I think it’s one of those instances of “you just know what I mean, so don’t read too much into it.” In other words, I’m pretty sure “history” means future generations, professional historians and normal people alike.

    Well, that was more than I intended, but there you go. Enjoy!

    • Certainly I think that overall we are driving to increase the consensus about the past, both in the academy and out of it. At the same time, though, even if it’s only in detail, we are all encouraged to do something special and make our mark, which involves differentiating ourselves from others in the same line of enquiry. And when we get into questions this large, I think that the consensus is rarely established for long, except at teaching level. Of course for this purpose that might be enough, I suppose.

      Glad to have provoked thought, anyway, and thankyou for doing so in return.

      • Cullen Chandler

        Sure, we are encouraged to do something different and special. But why does someone else, or several someones, have to be wrong? If someone really is wrong, by all means point it out, but I think we spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to come up with something wrong in every new article and book. Why not search for inspiration, a thought that someone had but maybe didn’t emphasize, and then use that as a launching pad? Doing so wouldn’t mean that the person is wrong. Doing something usefully new and different need not be refuting others. The “I win, you lose” approach loses its effectiveness at some point, I think, and drives us to become bitter.

        I think consensus on the big picture lasts fairly long. That’s why it takes about 20 years for new syntheses to be written, because that’s when a new consensus starts to emerge. Of course, I may be way off here.

        • No, I think that’s fair, where it can be achieved. But with things like, I don’t know, why people went on Crusade or why the Carolingian Empire fell, to pick two examples I’m used to, the consensus is never total and washes from shore to shore over that twenty-year period. Better, perhaps, to use your metaphor, the consensus never finishes emerging because it’s already changing by the time the wave has broken. And there are some questions where that consensus just hasn’t been reached at all, or was once reached and is now dissipated, like why the Normans were so successful for example, where all the actual answers are Victorian nationalist ones.

          As to the first paragraph, though, well, your generosity does you credit and I could probably do with emulating it, but any form of progress in the discipline necessarily involves an implication that previous work wasn’t sufficient, in some way, surely, even if it’s a `shoulders of giants’ affair.

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