historical practice

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Diagnosis: Not A Public Historian

Big whoop, right?

No really. I am going to write this piece with my hand exposed. I’ve got a pair of sevens, Jack-high: Not a public historian.

Idiom and metaphor aside, why does this matter?

Let me try to answer that in a roundabout way.

If I have argued anything over my last couple of posts it is that I am a proponent of form over content. I have dealt with this in relation to games and other specific instances of digital history but perhaps I should extrapolate on what I mean when I say content and form. I would argue that the way in which history is understood, the connections that we make as historians and the means by which we explore history as a practice is far more important than the subjects we explore. The subject matter, or content, is unimportant to the expression of history as a public space. What importance do “the facts” have when presenting history to the average person? Tonnes of importance is the answer I would think. “Facts” and the “truth” are what non-historians understand of our practice. We memorize events from the past and regurgitate them on command when needed. Is history a compendium of all human knowledge: my studies have taught me better. History is about ideas and interactions, about why people do things not what things people do. How does one explain the finer complexities of human interaction through plaques in a museum? I would argue that this is the big folly of public history: the failure to present history, in a philosophical form, to the public.

[This is where everyone begins to scribble down their hate-mail.]

Until now we have not had the means to explore these interactions. Plaques and displays are exceptionally limited in what they can do for us. Additionally public historians have been limited by the public’s lack of interest in the inner-workings of history in favor of the flashy veneer of historical “facts”. Digital history proposes a new way in which public historians can work their craft. On this matter I have already discussed in some small detail. It is the task of the public historian to present not the “facts”, but the means by which we explore history to the public. It is their job to find new ways of bridging the gap between the academic and the average. Until this is accomplished, museums and other public history spaces will continue to present interesting “truths” and historical “facts”.

What then is the job of the historian?

Nothing. Historians owe nothing. I recently read a very interesting¬†blog post concerning the duty of historians. While I agree with much of what was said (particularly on the sadly waning engagement of the average person with anything, let alone history) I was concerned with the emphasis placed on an historical moral imperative to teach.¬†I disagree with the idea that historians have a clerical duty as wielders of historical knowledge. Unlike public historians we are interested in “facts”, but insomuch as they can lead us to a better understanding of the greater complexities of history and human connections in the past. For me, history is a deeply personal exploration of ideas and thoughts. These are of interest to me, but I am under no illusions that they are mine to sermonize. These ideas are my own, sought, uncovered, taken, fermented, extrapolated, re-imagined, mine. History is the pursuit of a modern Arete. If the public demands my knowledge they can take it as I present it, complicated and blurry, in dire need of attention, but most of all, interpreted. History is not the practice of spelling out past events for everyone’s consumption, it is the pursuit of ideas through time for the enlightenment of the pursuer. You may read this and retch from the stench of academic arrogance, even find my rantings to be emblematic of a superiority complex often perceived within the academy. Sadly I fear that that is what most will read from this, but it is not my intent. I would love to share my knowledge with anyone who wants to listen, but I do not deem it a requirement of my profession to do so, nor do I think it appropriate to simplify history for mass-consumption. History is not something that can be effectively simplified without a critical loss of quality. There are no neat little boxes we can categorize history into to make it more accessible to the lay-person [stay tuned for a future post on this]. My thought is that such simplification does not benefit anyone. Instead what needs to be done is to raise the public’s understanding to a level that allows them to access this material and to formulate their own theories.

Such an ideal world we do not yet live in, but I have spent enough time around dedicated people working in the realm of public history to be content in knowing that this place is not so far away as we may think.

– Alex

I would like to thank my good chum Tyler for his participation as a sounding board and thought-provoker in writing this post.

P.S. The blog I referred to earlier was created by Andrew Bratcher of George Mason University. He is also designing an interactive game which looks super neat. Check it out here. I’m excited to see what other people, beyond my own cohort, are doing with games in history.