Senior Sem Journal: What Do Historians Do?

Fea, Why Study History?This spring in HIS499 Senior Seminar, students are reading Why Study History?, by John Fea of Messiah College. Most weeks they’ll be writing responses to a chapter, at least one of which we’ll post here on AC 2nd.

Our discussion of the book started with a seemingly simple question, “What do historians do?” Student responses focused on Fea’s discussion of the difference between “history” and “the past,” the centrality of story to history, what’s distinctive about the way historians think, and other questions. One response came from Fletcher Warren (’15), who’s double-majoring in History and Business & Political Science.

The answer to the question “What do historians do?” seems self-evident: Historians study the past. Yet this simplistic explanation of the historian’s craft does an injustice to the discipline, both in allowing our work to be undervalued by non-practitioners and by forestalling deeper reflection on the nature of the historical task — reflection that can deepen and enrich how we do history.

I admit that until recently, I had not thought extensively about this question. Although students of the humanities are often forced to justify their existence vis-à-vis more lucrative career paths, I had never actually been able to satisfactorily justify my choice to study history beyond the perfunctory, “I enjoy it.” This began to change last fall after several discussions in my Modern Europe class prompted me to think more deeply about the role of the historian. In response, I read the French historian Marc Bloch’s book, The Historian’s Craft, an influential treatise on the nature and methods of history. Thus, when asked in class to reflect on the question, “What do historians do?”, I offered a Blochian synthesis: historians study humans in society over time.

The first chapter of John Fea’s book, Why Study History? does little to challenge this definition. However, my initial reaction — to define — is a poor one in light of Fea’s writing. Fea focuses less on what history is and more on the methods and concerns of the historian. These included some familiar friends — the ‘five C’s’ of history (context, causality, complexity, contingency, and change over time) — but also two facets of the historical quest that I had not previously considered.

Hoffer, The Historian's Paradox
The historian’s paradox, as explained by Hoffer, is that while we can never produce a complete account of the past, historical truth can be achieved by careful investigation.

First, Fea, quoting Peter Hoffer, suggests that while the “historian’s paradox” may be unsolvable, we ought not be discouraged from the conviction that “something happened out there, long ago, and we have the ability […] to learn what that something is” (quoted in Why Study History?, p. 22).  I agree with Fea — at least in his latter point — but would go further by arguing that the “noble dream” of eventually developing a full and deep knowledge of the past is possible. In this, I sympathize with historian Gordon Wood, who expresses a confidence in this aspiration that Fea attenuates.

Second, Fea’s maxim that all history is revisionist in nature resonated with me. If the historian’s job is to “resurrect the past” (Why Study History?, p. 3),  it seems evident that we ought often to be disruptive; in the period between the events we study and the present, distortions and false-truths creep in. Allowing the past to breath its own air so to speak, often requires smashing present-day anachronism — often a dangerous task, for to the non-professional, personal conviction and social tradition are often more comforting than the difficult truths historians suggest.

These two facets of the historian’s role suggest that an answer to the question “What do historians do?” can be utterly justified in the face of existential criticism from non-practitioners:

Historians expand the field of human knowledge, telling us why we are the way we are; at the same time, they function as the auditors of society’s collective memory, correcting falsehood and prodding us to better our collective selves — a vital role, if any.

– Fletcher Warren


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