When asked to define what it is that historians do in twenty-five words or less, most of our Senior Seminar students stressed both the distinctive methods by which historians seek knowledge about the past and applications of that knowledge. In this last journal entry we’ll highlight from that assignment, Ro Tollefson (’13), pointedly avoids application in order to stress the quest for knowledge itself. (For the semester, Ro — a History/Nursing double-major — is researching the history of Bethel’s nursing program. Part of that project involves interviews with professors and alumni, which might explain why she highlights the importance of physical and oral evidence to historical research…)
WHAT DO HISTORIANS DO?
Historians strive to examine the past through oral and physical remains and piece together what has occurred before us.
I have partially revised my definition since our meeting last Monday as I continued to think about the question. I enjoyed the examination of the question of what exactly a historian does and is in our meeting and thought it was the perfect time to take time to look at this subject: in Senior Seminar, with enough history under our belts to understand the question to some extent, and on the brink of graduating and seeing where our lives with a degree in history take us.
What caught my attention in class the most was when we were each giving our definitions of what a historian does, and the primary difference between my answer and the rest of the students. This is what I would like to go into in more detail in this journal entry. By and large each student included in their definition of what historians do two parts: examining the past and applying it to the future. I, however, only included the first part in my definition, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was an important point. I heard more on why the other students thought that it was important to “do something” with the knowledge of history that historians amass, something positive that will affect the lives of others. While I do think that that could be a worthwhile pursuit, I do not think that it falls within the definition of a historian. I think the primary reason that this is important is that it, by necessity, adds some extra level of bias to the research. I understand that all interpretation, including the study of the past, is to some degree or another, biased. However, there are ways that it can become more so, and having the interrelated motive of “teaching/doing something positive” with the history researched increases bias towards one’s own goals, be they moral or otherwise.
– Ro Tollefson