Senior Sem Journal: What Do Historians Do? (part 3)

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…)

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.

A historian’s goal must be to present the past in as accurate a manner as is possible, true to reality. I think that, when this is done, then the step can be taken by individuals/the public to glean from it lessons or greater moral understanding, or keener insights into humankind and the patterns that man participates in over time. But this cannot be included in what the historian does as such; the examination of history, I believe, must be separate from that in order to maintain the highest level of truth/accuracy. Because what is the point of gaining historical insight from a distortion of history? This reminds me of what the student who spent last semester in Ghana said, that their history was not really a history at all, simply stories that were intended to teach people something. This, of course, is the extreme; however, I think that if learning morality from the past is something that is included in the definition of what a historian does, then it is already moving away from historical accuracy towards a biased bent towards one man’s self-serving (in ignorance or otherwise, for the good or not) investigation over another’s. I think that is dangerous to history’s real potency and moving towards what would be completely acceptable, even admirable, as long as it was acknowledged for what it is, a separate field of study and work.

– Ro Tollefson

<<Read the previous entry in the “Senior Sem Journal” series          Read the next entry in the series>>


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