Here’s the response of Jon Steen (’12), to my Senior Seminar assignment to define what it is that historians do in twenty-five words or less, and then to write some explanatory comments in their seminar journal entry for the week. As he wrote about last month, Jon is researching the history of Ghana in the Cold War, and here he again considers differences between the practice of history in the Global North and Global South.
WHAT DO HISTORIANS DO?
Historians, in the Western world, do two things: they research and recreate the past and they look to apply the lessons that are learned to the present day.
When it comes to the research and recreation aspect, historians in the West look to rebuild from what we have the actual events of what happened in the past. This is not an easy task, for not everything that has happened has been preserved or is not even in existence anymore. So a historian’s duty is to take the fragments and look to at these snippets from the past, and then infer the rest from the logical connections of what is in between the pieces that are known. The topics that can be studied are numerous, ranging from warfare and battles to social structure to architecture and so on. By looking at such topics, historians can understand what people did and how they lived.
This leads to the second aspect of a historian’s vocation: historians apply the lessons from the past to the present day. This is where the historian is given a sense of purpose, for they look at what other people have done and how they have reacted in certain circumstances and are therefore better judges about what humanity should and should not do today. For example, if there is a recurrent theme of economic hardship, a historian can look to predict when the next economic crisis will take place and also look at what mistakes were made which either led to the crisis or perpetuated the cycle of problems. They can also know better tactics to properly alleviate the hardships that are about to occur. By looking at and analyzing these patterns and themes, historians look to have a better understanding of how to make the world a better place today and to lead to a brighter future.
There is one other aspect to discuss here, and that is the first clause about the role an historian does concerning the West. The world does not operate the way the West does, nor should anyone expect it to. One example that I am rather familiar with is to look at the idea of history from an African perspective, namely from a Ghanaian perspective, which I have the most experience with and understand the best from all of the possible African contexts. The first thing to understand about Ghanaian history is that it does not exist the way it does in the West. In fact, there is no word in any Ghanaian language that is directly equivalent to the word “history.” There are, however, some people such as chiefs who are in charge of remembering stories which are from the past. These stories are not told for historical accuracy, as it would be if it was done in the Western tradition. Instead, they are told for a moral purpose: to better know how to live today. The stories go through a lot of variation, especially considering that the stories are usually shared orally instead of being written down and passed on. So to summarize, Westerners are the main practitioners of history since it is their prerogative to remember the past as it happened, and to better transmit these ideas to the present day to learn from them. But the world does not necessarily look to recreate the world in the same way, so someone from the West has to make sure that the way that they are studying history lines up with the cultural constraints that the study originates from.
– Jon Steen