Duties of a historian explained

A Liberal Dose

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 I am currently teaching one of my favorite classes: historical methodology. It is taken by history majors, usually in their sophomore year, to prepare them for upper division history courses. As you might imagine, no matter who teaches it, there is a lot of emphasis on how to do research, how to write papers, how to do citations, etc. I also focus on different theoretical approaches they will encounter if they go to graduate school and the “history of history.” A lot of my approach is modeled on the professor who taught me in this same course 20 years ago, Patrick Reagan. Like him, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the course exploring these two very important questions: what is history, and what do historians do? History is more than just studying the past, after all, because anthropology and archeology do that. Heck, so do literary and economics classes.

Short answer: History is the study of the past using written records from the time (newspapers, diaries, government reports, etc.) Historians do not just tick those things off in a list of events and names; they attempt to explain them - not just what happened, but why, and what the consequences were. Doing that requires a deep understanding of context and connections. I also try to teach my students to be better writers, because I think that the dense nature of most academic prose makes it inaccessible to the public, which explains why most nonfiction books about history on the bestseller lists are not actually by professionally trained historians. Those authors often have many strengths, including an ability to write well but lack the training for finding that deeper historical context and connections with things that might seem unrelated on the surface. I believe that many historians have thereby abdicated one of their important responsibilities: not just learning about the past but explaining it to the general public in such a way that they can learn from it, too.

Historians have to look, as much as possible, at every angle. This does not mean they present everything as equal: my lectures and my writings do not make excuses for Nazis or for slavery, for example, nor should they, although they may include the excuses such people made for themselves. I think that historians must not only help people learn ABOUT the past but also FROM the past.

I, myself, learned a lot about the potential impact of historians when I was working on my doctorate. I learned principally from the examples of my two co-advisers, Fred Hoxie and Vernon Burton, as well as the other members of my committee, Bruce Levine and David Roediger. I came in thinking I would just be learning (better) how to do research and teach, and, of course, I did learn those things. But my eyes were opened by serving for years as a research assistant to Hoxie (an expert in American Indian legal history) and Burton (expert on race relations in the South). I learned that both those individuals (and many others like them) also spent a lot of time writing reports for, and often testifying live in front of, state legislatures and even Congress and the Supreme Court, on behalf of oppressed groups. Because, especially where civil rights are concerned, historians play an important role.

You see, by explaining what happened in the past, and how and why, we shine a light on the present and help people understand what is happening now. We can provide warnings to avoid past disasters and, yes, a moral conscience to sway people from perpetuating past injustices.

Little wonder, then, that some politicians today want to pass laws to keep historians, on all levels, from doing that. But it is not our job to be cheerleaders. It is our job, our duty, to explain things honestly.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   

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