Once, when I was in grad school, I went to an event with some union friends, and I was challenged there by an international student who demanded an explanation from me, as a student of history, why Americans did not celebrate May Day. I sighed, knowing what was coming, but proceeded anyway to talk about the labor movement in the U.S. My inquirer quickly cut me off to announce that it’s because of our society’s hostility to all things communist (and communist-tinged). Frankly, these kinds of interactions tend to be common when people discover you’re a historian: folks pretend to ask you to weigh in on something, but they really just want to announce their own thinking on the subject. Everyone thinks they know history.
They do not, and for two reasons. The first is that what people have been taught about history — including me — is oftentimes wrong or incomplete. Thus, people do not always know things as fully or as well as they think they do. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself over the years; learning is an ongoing process (which sometimes requires unlearning; ALWAYS show your work). Historians are slightly less susceptible to scholarly hubris (hence, they will defer to a certain degree when they are not experts in a particular area), and it’s in good part in keeping with the old saw that being educated means you are aware of all you don’t know. Laypersons, however, lack this humility almost entirely, which leads me to the second reason for their ignorance: a misunderstanding of what history is.
The downside of professionalization is that people have come to believe that history is a set of facts to be discovered and mastered. In reality, it is a practice: the mining of evidence which is then scrutinized and shaped into a useful narrative that provides insight into who we are as people. History is created, not found. Historians get trained in doing that — haphazardly, often, and uncritically, often, but at least practiced in it. Laypeople are not, but they insist on acting as historians anyway because they erroneously believe that their use of facts is historical.
Historians are, themselves, to blame for this ignorance. They tried to turn the discipline into a science and reduce the work to data that could be analyzed and reported. This led to the misconception that historians are merely more conversant in the facts than non-experts, and that insofar as they know the facts, non-historians function on the same footing as historical experts — as if years of practice simply translates into a greater assimilation of data. After going through the analytical process with me in class, students are quickly disabused of this nonsensical belief. Still, it pervades our society, which makes it so painful to participate in public conversations today.
Sweet baby Jesus, it’s so noisy out there. I used to think I had something to offer to the discussion, but so much of what dominates is superficial, ignorant, and mean-spirited. Who wants to be a part of that? What’s the point? It’s like trying to raise an umbrella in a tropical storm. The public is unteachable; no intellectuals seek paths less traveled. Everyone knows everything about politics and history and stays firmly within the bounds of their suppositions. There’s too much “J’Accuse…!” and not enough of The Crucible.
Truthfully, I find many of the conversations out there pathetically uninteresting. It’s horrifying to see how many educated people are so uncritically possessed by their 21st century-mindsets and historical biases that they tweet or opine the most ridiculous claims. Did you know this is the most divisive time in US history — eclipsing the hostilities of the actual Civil War? Did you know no previous presidents or politicians so blatantly abused their offices or used them to their own advantage — forgetting Teapot Dome, the old spoils system, and even passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by a government dominated by slave-holders? Really, the white middle class is losing its shit of late while minority critics loudly proclaim this the Nation it’s always been. It’s embarrassing as a white person, this modern-day Columbian discovery.
Again, all of this drama and errant thinking represents a failure by the historical profession. In celebrating the Founders, we have failed to educate people on the way the deferential society and personal power truly worked. In shutting ourselves up on college campuses to debate historical minutia with one another, we have failed to educate the public effectively. Case in point: I recently read a review of William Hogeland’s new book, Autumn of the Black Snake in which the historian-reviewer points out that the story therein is familiar to scholars, though not to larger audiences. The reviewer suggests it’s commendable for Hogeland to popularize the history, when, truthfully, it should signal historians’ abject failure at education (but, a boon for Hogeland, anyway). They know; they don’t ground. I wrote a whole book on this topic that will never see the light of day because it wouldn’t sell.
Anyway, the predicament leaves us with a lot — and I mean A LOT — of artless invectives dominating our current national
dialogue verbally-abusive exchange. Educated columnists ignorant of their ignorance (or carelessly so because they are lost in their own rage) rant, stuffing their exclamations with half-baked or obvious and, often, unrelated historical facts. A bleating flock of historians appear on pedantic TV “magazines” and Op-Ed pages to hold forth in self-righteously angry, measured tones information that is uninspiring, unperceptive, and unprofitable. There’s no room for subtle creative voices. Our culture celebrates armband politics; it makes you wonder that we have landed anyone on the moon, tamed wild rivers with massive dams and birthed livable cities in uninhabitable places, or constructed frameworks of knowledge that have shaped perceptions for centuries. We still have no history that helps us understand ourselves. Most certainly, don’t look for it in all the noise.