One of the questions I get asked fairly often is, “so what is it that you’re studying at university?” As my fellow aspiring historians would appreciate, this is a difficult question to answer. What to say? Where to start? How does one reduce the subject of multiple years’ research into a simple, one sentence answer?
My stock-standard response is to repeat the title of my thesis: “oh, i’m looking at radical conservative movements in Australia and New Zealand during the Great Depression.” To me, that single sentence – complete with all the little connotations that only I am familiar with – is more exciting than a rollercoaster full of sharks hurtling through space.
However, i’ve no illusions that most non-historically inclined people tune out somewhere after ‘radical’. And why wouldn’t they? Let’s face it – we aspiring historians love OUR topics, but sometimes WE even struggle not to fall asleep when a colleague is ranting excitedly about their own little research babies.
For some academics, this isn’t a problem. Happy within the walls of the Ivory Tower, they argue that their work was never meant to appeal to a mass audience. The very nature of psotgraduate study implies a sense of separation – a minimum requirement of specialised knowledge before its secrets can be comprehended. After all, when Steve the theoretical physicist explains the role of the Higgs mechanism within the Standard Model in predicting the existence of the so-called ‘God particle’, my response will most likely be, “zuh?” Rather, its value lies within the worldwide community of like-minded physicists who WILL understand what Steve is on about.
I am of an entirely different mindset. Certainly, the complexities of academia are generally beyond those not versed in a particular field, but that does not mean that a well-written, widely understandable version of that knowledge cannot be published for a mass audience. Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a great example of science writ popular, and there are plenty of examples of good ‘popular histories’ out there as well. Hence, the lasting appeal of James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars (adapted here into a five-part documentary).
Remember, also, that history is primarily a literary craft. A ripping good historical yarn is more understandable to the everyday person than a table-full of scientific equations, which makes our discipline even MORE of interest outside academic circles. Of course, this does not imply that there is no place for purely academic history, or that all history can be written in an accessible fashion. It merely means that academic and popular histories should not be seen as irreconcilable opposites, but as two ends of a sliding scale.
But anyway, i’m getting a bit sidetracked. My point in writing this blog, as evinced by its title, was to demonstrate why history is awesome. More specifically, if I can capture some of that awesomeness in this post, it might help explain to my friends and family why I am such a geek for it. To do that. I might have to go a little philosphical, so bear with me.
1.) ‘History’ does not equal ‘the past’. When most people think of history, they think of “a bunch of shit that happened”. Some guy named Steve (a popular name, FYI) raised an army, fought another guy, became King, and then did some other crazy shit before dying. But what they’re really taking about is the past – the sum total of all events that have ever happened before this moment. History, by contrast, is the process of investigating and writing about one tiny segment of the past. I’ve emphasized one tiny segment, because it is just that – one. Tiny. Segment. Think about all the people who have ever lived, and everything they’ve ever done. Or thought. Or created. Or written down. That’s one hell of a massive tapestry to draw on.
2.) ‘History’ does not equal ‘truth’. Let’s go back to Steve for a moment – the army-raising Steve, not the physicist. Now, in the course of Steve’s long and eventful life, he no doubt left many things behind. Maybe his local church recorded his birth date. Maybe poets wrote songs about him. Maybe he wrote letters to his mother, discussing his innermost secrets and fears. Maybe he ordered a thorough list of all his estates and holdings written for tax purposes. Maybe he even had a biography carved into his tomb before he died, extolling his many successes. All of these things – which historians call primary sources – are evidence about his life and the world in which he lived. In short, they are evidence of one segment of the past.
But the evidence is incomplete – we don’t know, for instance, what Steve’s childhood was like. We don’t know how popular he was amongst the populace, or how effective his administration was. We don’t know the composition of his armies, or why they chose to fight for him. Our most thorough piece of information- his biography – is clearly going to be biased in his favour. So how do we relay Steve’s story when we don’t even know all the details?
The answer is, we write history. We use the evidence that is available to construct an argument that best fits that evidence. We might not actually know what Steve’e childhood was like, but we can deduce from the tender affection he lavishes on his mother in his letters that it was a good one. Likewise, we might not actually know the composition of his armies, but we can dedude from poems written about Steve’s first steps to power in his own province that they were probably recruited from his homeland. To use another example – if I wanted to argue that Bruce Wayne was Batman (without knowing it for certain), I could point out how he and Batman have never been seen in the same room together. Or the fact that the bat cave is inexplicably located under his million dollar mansion.
In short, history is about explaining one tiny segment of the past. Historians do not merely relay the what, like a talking parrot – we try to figure out the where, the how, and the why, by filling in the gaps between the evidence. Like Steve the physicist, constructing models for subatomic particles that he will never see first-hand, we deduce, infer, and suggest.
3.) History is an ongoing debate. Because history is all about constructing arguments, it becomes by its very nature contestable. Historians disagree; they deduce different things, they make different arguments, they come to different conclusions. The arguments constructed today might become obsolete in the wake of new evidence discovered tomorrow.
This, history is not about writing the official account of ‘what really happened’. History is a flowing river of arguments, stretching out behind us and in front of us. As each aspiring historian dips their toes into this river, they must acknowledge the work that has come before them, and point out how their own argument is unique – indeed, better – than those of their predecessors.
4.) History is contextual. Okay, so we’ve pieced together the evidence of King Steve and made a solid case for our interpretation. But do we really know what Steve and his Kingdom were all about? Why was there a civil war now? What caused Steve to pick up his sword, and why did thousands of soldiers decide to join him? There must be some historical undercurrent that made all this possible, right?
The answer to this question is historical context. To go back to my tapestry analogy, how can I write the story of one thread without mentioning the other threads that wove it into place? Perhaps Steve’s civil war was the result of inefficient administration by the previous King. Perhaps excessive taxation, or brutal repression, allowed Steve’s bid for Kingship to be successful. Or perhaps some underlying cultural trait of Steve’s home province lent itself to armed rebellion. Perhaps his province was conquered only a few generations ago, and the seeds of discontent were never fully crushed.
In short, context is about cause and effect. By broadening the scope of my study beyond Steve’s life, the historian can provide a better explanation of what happened. As the old saying goes, “no segment of the past is an island” (err… or something like that).
5.) By writing a thesis, your work is (or should be) unique. Because each and every piece of history is (or should be) a unique argument, constructed to explain a series of evidence on a segment of the past, it is therefore unique. This means that, once you have finished writing it, you are now the foremost expert in the world in your given area of expertise. Which is pretty fucking awesome.
So, my beloved friends and family, hopefully this helps you to understand why I can spend countless hours researching something that, summarised in a single sentence, seems about as interesting as a Pauly Shore movie. Those ‘radical conservative movements’ that I talk about were part of a broad, international right-wing phenomenon that stretched back as far as the 1880s. The evidence they left behind ranges from detailed to sketchy, so I must deduce and infer where there are gaps in the story. In short, it’s like playing detective – albeit without Horatio Kane and his magical one-liners. The end result will be a unique argument which contributes to that ever-flowing river of debate.