Archive for March, 2012
March 8th, 2012
I continue to worry about the erosion or denial of historical expertise by both non-academics and by non-historian academics. Historians bear some responsibility when non-academics dismiss our historical expertise. As William Cornon has recently pointed out in his essay for Perspectives, “Professional Boredom,” historians too readily ignore that non-academic audience and define “professional history according to the norms of the academy.” Cronon highlights an important problem that warrants further scrutiny. Here I want to gesture to the problem that arises when non-historian academics deny historical expertise.
In a recent post, “Good Science Often Makes Bad History,” I worried about efforts by scientists to find useful historical information about the weather in 9th- and 10th-century Baghdad. That post was based on summaries of an article by F. Domínguez-Castro et al., “How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate?” Weather 67(2012): 76–82. Consequently, my conclusions had to be qualified. Now, having read the article, I realize that my tentative critique fully justified and should be extended. Their denial of historical expertise—both in the form of a distinct methodology and set of practices as well as a command of a body of knowledge—invalidates results, making them problematic as historical or scientific knowledge.
Read my fuller analysis over at PACHS: “Scientists and Bad History”
March 4th, 2012
William Cronon, the current president of the AHA, knows a lot about how to make history accessible and interesting to non-historians. See his website for some of the ways he moves beyond the narrow sphere of academic history. So when he worries about how the profession defines itself, we should probably take his concerns seriously. In a recent essay for Perspectives, “Professional Boredom,” he raises a number of good points that warrant further consideration. In particular, he points out that despite the general public’s healthy appetite for history, professional historians rarely produce work intended for public consumption. He urges historians, by which he means professional, academic historians, to make our histories less boring, to resist the temptation to define our field too narrowly:
Given the immense public appetite for history, and the essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present, the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of “professional history” could not be more clear.
This is why, I would argue, we should keep a close watch on boredom if we want to make sure history continues to reach beyond our professional circles to a public that includes not just an educated citizenry, but intellectuals in other disciplines and historians in other fields. If professional history is sometimes boring, let’s ask what it is about our professionalism that makes it so.
How do we avoid professional boredom? By making sure we don’t define “professional” too narrowly. By not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history. By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.
This is why I find it so rewarding to talk to people beyond the academy, why I enjoy participating in the Philadelphia Science Festival, and why I often find myself “Taking History of Science to ‘Them’”