Sympathy for the historian

I have been hard on academic historians in these pages, which gives me no pleasure, as I am uncomfortable criticizing a whole class of people who are in no way trying to cause harm. 

But by failing to supply students with knowledge they can use, academic historians are, in my opinion, slowly suffocating history education as well as their own profession, which is highly dependent on the nation’s educational system for sustaining its livelihood. This is a heartbreaking state of affairs because history is a fundamental realm of knowledge alongside mathematics, language, and science.

As the discipline charged with describing human experience, history is the discipline best suited for informing judgment in human affairs—a commodity that our species needs more than ever before as human society continues to deploy new technologies with the potential to disrupt life on earth.

I admit that I, as a history teacher, have harbored feelings of resentment toward academic historians because they are so influential in determining what history teachers teach (they teach the teachers), and they have given us so little to work with. Unlike professionals in other fields, they have not systematically supplied education with knowledge that can be usefully applied in the future.

It is true that academic historians may produce histories that can later prove relevant to a particular present-day interest or concern. For example, any Democrat running for president today would be well-advised to look-up civil rights legislation of the Joe Biden era. This kind of specific historical information is available at our fingertips on the Internet—whenever we want it—from external sources such as history books, journals, and news accounts. 

It’s the job of education, however, to supply the internal knowledge that we carry in our heads, knowledge that informs our thinking all the time. Internal knowledge is extremely important to our thinking because it constitutes how we conceptualize the world; it’s the lens through which we perceive all new experience; it’s the armature to which all subsequent learning is attached. It informs our attitudes, judgments, and decision-making on a daily basis.

Internal knowledge is another name for knowledge held in long-term memory, which is another name for learning itself. Knowledge suitable for general education purposes—knowledge carried in our heads—is relevant to the future, important, and general in nature, precisely the kind of knowledge that is not being supplied to history education by academic historians.

If teachers and their students are victims of the constricted conception of historical knowledge adopted by academic historians, academic historians are victims of an academic system that requires them to publish original research in order to obtain and maintain employment and to advance their careers—a system that relentlessly pushes these historians into ever more obscure corners of the historical past to find topics previously unexplored, and that results in histories largely removed from the concerns of the rest of society.

This tradition-bound system likely explains why society finds itself looking to practitioners from other fields for useful histories, and why teachers must take charge of history schooling so they can perform their basic function of imparting important knowledge of the world that can be useful to students and society in the future.

The expectation placed on academicians to produce original research might make more sense in science-related fields such as medicine, genetics, cosmology, and computer science in which the frontiers of learning are continually expanding. It makes less sense in a field that deals in finite events from the past. 

The new frontiers of learning in a field like history may involve the synthesis of knowledge to produce new understandings useful to society, perhaps drawing on methods from other disciplines such as mathematics and statistics to learn, for instance, the actual incidence of certain recurring dynamics in history and the likelihood—and under what circumstances—these dynamics may play out again in the future. This is knowledge that could be most beneficial to society for informing judgment in human affairs.

As we know, many academic historians are also history teachers. I suspect that most consider themselves to be historians first and teachers second; some might even consider their teaching responsibilities to be a burden. But if they were to look at history education from their teacher side, perhaps they would find good reason to support the concept of future-focused history—not only with respect to their teaching, but also with respect to their research.

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