What Makes the Historian?

Peter Cline (1942-2008), Professor of English History.

“Why study history?” I hope I am not alone as one who ended up in a career without realizing it. I started my undergraduate career thinking I would follow my father’s wishes and become a medical doctor. Then I took a class with Peter Cline (late of Earlham College in Richmond, IN, USA) and I was seduced into the study of the past. (In all fairness, my high school History teacher Peter Taylor, now a professor at Dominican University near Chicago, whetted my appetite for History just before I started college). By the time I was studying German History with Bob Southard,I was hooked.

Bob Southard (1945-2007), Professor of German History.

Like many drawn to the study of the past, I was initially captivated by narrative history, history as story-telling. I also gravitated to the idea that the discipline of History can help us understand the present, especially where we came from and who we are. (I never, however, understood the reason I often hear from novices: learning from the past so that we don’t repeat its mistakes). After college and a brief flirtation with journalism, I returned to History still primarily intrigued by the idea that the roots of contemporary realities are found in the past.

In graduate school, I came upon History as, first and foremost, analysis. History became Historiography, the study of the study of history. The raw materials of analytical history are primary sources, texts but also non-textual sources, like art and architecture and material culture. (And, in addition to books and other examples of literate culture, the social historian depends on written and material evidence representing non-elites like court records, archeological remains, even fossilized poop, known as paleofeces). The historian engages his or her predecessors and contemporaries in debates over the evidence. These debates, in turn, are grounded in theories, like materialism, idealism, feminism and a host of variations and amalgams of these and other social theories and philosophies.

A new set of challenges presented themselves to me as I began teaching history. I have tried to impress upon my students that memorizing dates and names is not– contrary to what most high school graduates think– the stuff of history. Instead it is about making arguments or interpretations based on sufficient and compelling evidence convincingly presented. This is a rigorous process, but it is also wide open to creativity and even the playfulness of the imagination.

Philippe Aries' book demonstrated that childhood is a creation of social and economic factors.

I am increasingly cognizant of another key reason for studying history. “Thinking historically” means challenging assumptions and exploring implications. Take childhood, for example. Most people assume that childhood is a given; that it is a period of human development, however roughly defined, that all of us go through. Not so, argued Philip Aries in Centuries of Childhood, published almost 50 years ago. Closely analyzing paintings, he discovered that in medieval France, there were no children. There were babies and there were adults and nothing in between. Little boys were dressed and did the work of men. They were little men. Little girls were little women. That all changed with profound implications for society beginning in the 16th century, first among elites and, by the 20th century, among all Frenchmen. Now age was important; the innocence of childhood was created. All the stuff and the allied institutions and businesses we associate with childhood– from daycare to Gymboree (or, for the French, Baby Dior)– were created as part of this process.

James Loewen's critique of American high school history textbooks.

My secondary school teacher-colleagues generally don’t like the book Lies My Teacher Told Me (you can imagine why), but I think author does a terrific job of busting the national myths that are created to school American children in the ways of proper citizenship. (The creation of citizenship is the subject of another historian of France, Eugene Weber. His Peasants in Frenchmen will be the topic of a future discussion).  We learn from Loewen that that the nationalist “white washing” (in more ways than one) of history that high schoolers are subject to, masks the socialism of Helen Keller and the radicalism of John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, among others.

This is all to say that I now understand my purpose as a historian to be to challenge assumptions and (if I can muster the strength) shatter taken-for-granteds.

Of course, there will doubtless be another chapter is my own education. A concrete example of myth-busting Ancient History will come in my next post.

About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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2 Responses to What Makes the Historian?

  1. Mark Chmiel says:

    Steve, this post reminds me of a brief exchange I had several years ago with an amazing student, Zeina. Near the end of her medical school journey, I asked her, “If you weren’t on the road to being a doctor, and could study any subject for a PhD that you wanted, what would it be?” She had no hesitation: “History!” she declared emphatically, “Because people need to know the truth of what has happened!”

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