What’s the Point of Academic History? A Roundtable Discussion.

Prompted by this article from the African periodical Mail&Guardian, we asked PhD students and educators from across the discipline for their personal take on the purpose of academic history.

David Shorten, moderator:

As aspiring historians, we face a common problem. As we are all well aware, enrollments in history courses have been steadily decreasing while at the same time, universities have begun favoring a more “practical” curriculum. These red flags indicate a growing “crisis of the twenty-first century” for history, which impels us to re-evaluate the discipline’s place in both the academy and the wider world.

Given that history is a discipline at once appealing to broad audiences while requiring specialized expertise, do we have an obligation to make our work more accessible to the general reader or is it proper for us to remain in our “ivory towers”? How do we bring history back into the fold of a society focused on the new and the up-and-coming, and can we do so without sacrificing intellectual rigor?

And, aside from questions of rigor, there is also the question of relevance. If the university and its clientele demand “practical” educations, does academic history owe its patrons a better return on its investment? Are we obliged to teach lessons applicable to life in modern society? Do we do that already?

Or perhaps this profound and hallowed field should refuse to adapt to the demands of a fickle public; perhaps the discipline should refuse to subject itself to “market forces” even if that means academic history is due to be sent to the antique shop, quaint and somewhat useless. Do we reconfigure the field to meet modern interests and expectations and if so, are we admitting that our current approach is without value?

But what all of this self-searching comes down to is this: What purpose does history serve, for you and for anyone?

Why Diplomatic (and all other) History Still Matters

By Andrew David

It’s not terribly popular these days for historians to call themselves diplomatic historians. But the study of the history of foreign policy remains popular and useful. If we’re ranking the “practical” reasons for studying diplomatic history, the policy and political aspects are the clearest. Ernest May and Richard Neustadt wrote that “Washington decision-makers [use] history in their decisions, at least for advocacy or for comfort, whether they knew any or not.” But, as Margaret Macmillan recently warned, “If we do not, as historians, write the history of great events as well as the small stories that make up the past, others will, and they will not necessarily do it well.” That alone is a good argument for continued academic rigor, no matter how “ivory tower” it may be at times.

One need only look at the oft-evoked analogy of the Munich Crisis. It is a powerful parallel. After all, who wouldn’t go back and stop the Nazis? But politicians have sometimes misused the analogy, both on purpose and because of misunderstandings, to justify military adventures. That alone substantiates the need for the political elite to understand history and for the public to understand when a politician is misusing it. Using the past isn’t perfect: even well-informed efforts can have poor results. But it can help illuminate and elucidate possible options.

It’s also important to note that diplomatic history remains popular. Enrollments in diplomatic history classes at my institution, for example, remain high. The public continues to buy books on the subject and critics continue to praise them. The subject’s current state within academia has as much to do with the dated view of diplomatic history as being stodgy, stale, and unaccepting of advances in the field. In fact, diplomatic history is full of scholars taking innovative bottom-up and top-down approaches.

But I would argue that all facets of history have practical value. Indeed, history majors fare no worse, on average, in lifelong earnings than business majors and even some STEM majors. History teaches important writing and critical thinking skills. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the most popular commentators/analysts of the energy sector, hardly an irrelevant field, got his training as a historian (a diplomatic historian no less). Anyone in business, science, or technology—what I assume would be held forth as the “practical” majors of today—would be lying if they claimed their work did not benefit from being able to assess information and convey it effectively.

But history is more than just a series of practical skills. Understating where we came from, and what happened before, is a key tool in understanding where we are right now. We do ourselves a disservice by assuming any less and I am confident that the trend we face right now will reverse itself. We may never completely overcome the current demand, from universities and parents/students, for “practical” education. But there are many reasons to believe this is only a temporary situation. After all, as most historians would agree, the world is always changing.

UntitledAndrew David is a PhD candidate at Boston University examining post-1945 US political and diplomatic history. His research looks at Congressional-White House relations and the evolution of the national security state, specifically the National Security Council staff and Defense Department.

History in the Public Realm

By PJ Carlino

Funding is the medium through which the mainstream culture communicates with education, and the recent message has been to focus on short-term returns. Arts and humanities funding has dropped in the last eight years and those grants that remain are primarily awarded to research that is project-based and community oriented. For history to remain relevant, the discipline must encourage the visibility of historians who are not agnostic about the future but instead seek to actively engage other disciplines and the world outside of academia in the interpretation of the past to shape the future.

I hope that my future scholarship and that of other emerging and established historians can bridge the disconnect between academic history and the short-term goals of the broader society. I study the early history of industrialization in the United States. I like nothing better than to spend a few weeks in the archive with ledgers, documents, and trade catalogs rebuilding the development and structure of the businesses and communities that made the United States the world’s foremost consumer culture. Inevitably the understanding of social structures of innovation lends itself to comparison with the present and a projection for the future, but this futurist inflection — what mainstream Americans seem to be demanding of higher education — is often frowned upon by the academy.

I worry that the activist part of my work will not be embraced to the same degree as scholarly publication. I plan to work collaboratively with urban planners, builders and government policy makers to apply knowledge of the history of industrialization to the new emerging innovation and service economy. I will also continue to connect the community to history by curating exhibitions that interpret objects of design and industrialization to visually demonstrate how society has progressed, what has remained constant, and what the possibilities are for the future. I will also continue to teach industrial design from a historical perspective. To be a strong teacher and pursue this creative community based work I will not publish at high volume. Unfortunately some University history programs have assessed community-oriented, collaborative, public communication of historical research as less rigorous than monographs in peer-reviewed journals and therefore less worthy of credit.

One of the ways that the discipline of history can remain relevant to the mainstream culture is to embrace historians that are ambassadors engaged with other academic disciplines and in the world outside of academia. Historians that re-package the narrative of history in accessible ways through digital publishing, movie screenings, exhibits and performances, fiction, directing galleries, museums, festivals or theater demonstrate the immediate relevancy of history to the culture. Even more pertinent is for historians to serve on advisory committees for nonprofits, foundations and government bodies. This is not to say that academic history written for scholars is not relevant, just that performance and advisory roles that engage with the non-academic community must be recognized and celebrated as alternative, intelligent, didactic forms of communication that augment nuanced and theoretical publishing.


P.J. Carlino is a Ph.D. student at Boston University studying American industrialization and consumerism in the late 19th century and early 20th century. His research seeks to understand how the objects Americans made and consumed both responded to and constituted the physical and social environment.


The Antiques Roadshow-ification of Academic History

By Sam Shupe

If anyone is to blame for the remarkable plunge of enrollment in college history courses, it is academic historians themselves. Largely isolated in the fabled “ivory tower” of the academy, historians often choose to produce and share written and spoken word geared only towards academic audiences. Such self-induced quarantine has allowed our beloved art of “history” to be re-imagined in the popular mind as lacking importance in the contemporary world.

Television shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and Antiques Roadshow provide the defining content of what historical inquiry is for much of the popular mind. These shows, based on the premise of assigning monetary value to objects, reveal knowledge of history as merely a tool for discerning economic worth of the past. They teach us that if a history is worth anything, it’s for knowing how to better haggle with pawnshop owners over the stuff you found in your grandparent’s attic. On TV, historical knowledge has become less power of mind and articulation and more of a handy insider trading knowledge for the flea markets of the American landscape.

To be fair, many academic historians do publish their work through popular presses, write for mass-audience newspapers, and teach students who do not consider themselves academics. But still, undergraduates are more likely to arrive at universities with a cable television conception of history. By and large, 18-year-olds have spent more time with the History Channel than Alfred Knopf. History has become a required course, not an illuminating perception of the world around us. Academic historians have let television drown out their voices by our lack of interest in participating in contemporary popular culture.

As academic historians, we are of an elite status in society in that we are paid to explore and share our beliefs about past people and their movements through intellectual, social, physical, and cultural life. Yet, in the face of this privilege, we have chosen to insulate our own profession so drastically that we regularly write and speak only to other academics. We generally choose to lend our work to the Organization of American Historians, but not to the neighborhood community center. We have consciously narrowed our audience so drastically that we’ve blinded ourselves to the broader movements that our own contemporary human bodies are apart of. We can research and analyze the people of the past, but we are unable to analyze the intellectual person we see in our own bathroom mirrors. Should we care about “advancing the field” when the field does not have understandable meaning to anyone but ourselves?

The popular mind sees historians as a dying breed, quaint hobbyists replaceable by the ceaselessly expanding Internet and cable television. Instead of making efforts to explain why history is so vitally important to modern people, we publish rigorously convoluted academic histories simply for the sake of undeniably unique arguments. We have chosen to privilege absurd complexity and specialization over creativity, excessively narrow distinctiveness over powerful communication, and isolation over membership to our broader cultures and communities outside of the academy.  We are experts in contextualizing peoples of the past yet amateurs in contextualizing ourselves as people in the present. It is no wonder that more people are familiar with the Antiques Roadshow than their local university’s history professors. It is our jobs as historians to be heard and understood, so let’s speak up.

shupeSam Shupe is a Ph.D. student in the American & New England Studies Program at Boston University where his research focuses on how 19th Century labor, leisure, and recreation have altered public landscapes. Sam has enjoyed giving historical talks at local bars and bike shops as much as academic conferences. He edits and self-publishes a magazine of criticism and observation of modern life using art and words called Just Short of Jaundice.

History’s Flight from Politics

By Patrick King

Must one take sides in the study of history? It would seem that in the practice of academic history, an author’s personal political views or preferences must be rigorously excised, cast off or repressed as if these are secrets nobody wants to hear. One of the more interesting disagreements within the Marxist historical tradition arose, more or less, from this very problem. Peter Linebaugh’s 1986 review of Perry Anderson’s work, “In the Flight Path of Perry Anderson,” counter-posed a history of political struggle to Anderson’s own outlook of detached historical judgment. Anderson, at that point, was one of the preeminent authorities of historical materialism, holding an editorial post at the New Left Review and high-ranking academic status as the author of highly respected historiographic works.

Linebaugh’s review was launched with the purpose of reading Anderson’s most recent book on a flight from Washington DC to New Orleans, and this becomes the metaphor for Anderson’s aloof stance that cannot scan the class struggle operating below in the concrete situations of capitalist production and reproduction. For Linebaugh, the whole Marxist understanding of history becomes an abstract system in Anderson’s hands, a “virtual doctrine for and by university, metropolitan intellectuals.”  Against this longue durée approach, Linebaugh (following in the footsteps of historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and E.P. Thompson) puts forth an understanding of history focused upon social and political struggle. Capitalism as an economic system (the main object of Marxism as such) cannot be understood apart from concrete instances of working-class opposition, “the actual, living struggle against inequality.” As the flight begins to end, Linebaugh’s invective becomes even more impassioned:

Anderson is a man fond of speaking of the laws of history…Capital has always needed a long view to find its laws. To make and enforce the laws of history, the laws of money, and the laws of meaning, it has needed its high justiciaries, its DAs, its screws. 

We can understand this more simply as a disagreement over the “social function of the past”: is history resigned to the investigation of what has been and thus can offer only sober analyses of the present, devoid of partisanship? Or is it better to view the historical past as having an actuality for present problems? This may seem obvious, but the historian who both studies the history of the Left and would consider him or herself a member of that political persuasion must eventually make this very difficult choice.

Once this choice is made, one finds that history is an inexhaustible source of stories and narratives of those who have not followed the laws of capital, the laws of money, or the laws of their own particular existential situations. These examples tell us that though we are conditioned by certain historical events, we are never imprisoned within them. It is within this seeming truism that Linebaugh sees the historian’s political role. This does not disqualify the need for good historical work and conceptual distinctions; but neither does it write off the imperative to understand history in order to be able to think and act otherwise.


Patrick King is a Ph.D student in the History of Consciousness program at UC-Santa Cruz. 
His interests are broadly within the tradition of European philosophy, the history of political thought, and Western Marxism.

The Role of the Professional Historian as Storyteller

By Lilly Havstad

Professional historians research, write and tell stories about peoples, cultures, places and events of the past. Telling stories requires imagination and the ability to capture the audience’s imagination. Harnessing the imagination while recreating stories of the past with the right kind and right amount of evidence is what sets professional (or academic) historians apart from popular historians who tend to write more ‘marketable’ books than the professional historian’s monograph. Gordon Wood says historical monographs aren’t reaching audiences outside their academic fields because they don’t tell compelling stories; they’ve abandoned narrative. The lack of engagement with audiences beyond the academe may be contributing to the marginalization of history departments in academic institutions. And so, it is the role of historian-as-storyteller that I want to focus on as my contribution to the present discussion on the point of academic history.

I was invited to contribute to this virtual “roundtable” discussion for my perspective as an Africanist historian on the purpose of academic history. While I do not think that my job as a historian of Africa is somehow fundamentally different from Europeanists, Latin Americanists, Asianists or Americanists, I do think that what drives me in this pursuit for a PhD in African history and to devote my career to teaching, comes from a particular set of motivations.

These motivations stem from my experiences living and travelling in southern and west Africa, the activist that lives in me, and the storytellers that inspire me. One such storyteller is the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who I first encountered during my first year in graduate school in 2010. In the TED talk below, she articulated for me something I had been thinking about for a few years, but didn’t know how to articulate in my own words.

Adichie warns us of the “danger of a single story.” For Africa, it is the “single story of catastrophe” that she challenges us to question. Sadly, most Americans only know one story of Africa — the story of catastrophe — of war, hunger, deprivation, slavery, darkness. Adichie also tells us that the single story closes off any “possibility of a connection as equals.” The consequences of the “patronizing, well-meaning pity” that results from the single story of catastrophe are perhaps most visible in failed development projects, conceived of by well-meaning people who, with little more than the story of catastrophe, grossly misunderstand the people to whom they seek to bring said “development.”

As an Africanist of a new generation of scholars, I am confronted with the challenging task of finding a way to introduce my students to the continent of Africa without subscribing to the single story of catastrophe or the dominant historical narrative of African struggle. Stories of struggle are so important, everywhere. But do I have to introduce my students to the African continent through that paradigm? Won’t that reinforce the single story of catastrophe? So what is the right narrative?

And so what? Why do these questions matter? This is on a most fundamental level what I believe my job as a historian to be: to challenge myself, my readers and my students to question what we think we know with a “balance of stories,” in the words of the late Chinua Achebe.

Learning about the peoples, cultures, places and events of the past informs our understanding of the present. Not by interpreting the past through the present (presentism, something we all work to avoid) but by making connections and imagining the various possibilities of human experience. Telling stories serves this purpose not only in capturing broad(er) audiences but also in encouraging ourselves and our audiences to question what we think we know based on established and persistent meta-narratives that we as historians are so eager to tear down.


Lilly Havstad is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University in History and African Studies. She studies 19th and 20th century southern Africa. Her research focuses primarily on southern Mozambique where she is looking at urban foodways and the emergence of an African middle class through the 20th century to present times. Her teaching interests include African histories and cultures, Atlantic world history, food studies, gender, and environments. 

History as Human Nature

By Jeremy Shea

High school students question all aspects of their education. Countless times during my day, I field a multitude of inquiries, from, “Mister, did we have to answer the questions for homework?” to “Why do we need to know where the states are? We have GPS.” to the ever popular, “Why does the principal care if I’m not wearing the right uniform? These boots are great.” It is the nature of the teenage mind to question authority and form judgments about the people and world around them.

As a history teacher, I hear my students wonder (usually in a rather loud manner) why history is a subject they need to study. “I want to be a physical therapist. I don’t care about the Trail of Tears.” Before I started teaching, this question would have left me struggling for words, attempting to explain using some bromide. “If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.” But who am I to tell a student that if they don’t study, they’re destined to carry out genocidal policies against minority groups? Once I started teaching, however, I realized the answer came simply from why I loved history in the first place: stories.

The human race, for all its qualities that makes it unique on this planet, separates itself from all other species by one simple trait: We are storytellers. Some of us can captivate an audience with our words, while others can corner you at a party and drone on about TPS reports. No matter the person, we all have that desire to tell stories. It is the reason there are more than 25 million songs you can buy from iTunes while the Library of Congress holds 32 million cataloged books. While not everyone is a great storyteller, we all appreciate the story. In the early days of hunter-gatherer societies, elders were the most respected members of the community, not because of their hunting skills or that they could carve the best bows, but because their stories were prized above all else. While members of that society had different roles and skills, what tied every person together was that common story, their history.

So why do I teach history and assign 15-page research papers? Students need to hear the stories of the past and feel a connection to people long dead. I was teaching the Roaring Twenties prior to the Christmas break (I can say that because I teach at a Catholic school) and students were each assigned a famous person from the decade. They spent a week researching that person and in the end, we had a party where the students acted as their character and interacted with teachers and other students. Should I be concerned that today, one student knows more about Emily Post than the success of the Works Progress Administration? Some might argue yes. But I’m happy that a teenager could, through research, connect with a woman that died 50 years ago, and critically assess the impact she made promoting etiquette. Should I be concerned that a scholar spends his or her whole life studying the development of economic systems in colonial America? No, because I know that a story is being told.

JEREMYJeremy Shea writes for Yester and teaches high school history in Lawrence, Mass. He lived for two years in Belize running a school library and previously spent time overseas in Botswana.


Oedipus as Historian

By Paul J. Edwards

“How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be
When there’s no help in truth!”
-Oedipus Rex

If one wanted to find the ultimate story — the ultimate narrative — of the historian, one must look to the tragedy of Oedipus. The King of Thebes faced the absolute sublime terror of historical investigation. Realizing he is the product of his own historical search is what every historian must grapple with. Historical inquiry is an uneasy task that frustrates, angers, and ultimately leads to a feeling that there is something undone.

The historian belongs in academia yet has no place in the American college. The American system is an industry that slowly turns professors into day laborers; adjuncts with no tenure, no healthcare, and no safety net. Austerity is a redistribution of wealth for administrative salaries. Academia will not but should change. Instead of bemoaning the fact that the university system privileges — currently — the sciences and professional schooling, the humanities should revel in this opportunity to change, to cast off the American college entirely.

The point of an advanced degree is neither to be smarter nor wiser than our friends and associates. It is to fully comprehend the processes of our world: we are accidents of chance; nothing happens for a supreme reason; and most importantly, that we will never have it all. This goes against everything that we are told growing up. Every commercial, advertisement, lesson in school pretends that we are happily progressing — that the world is ours.

My progressive — not nearly radical — undergraduate university had a running joke about leaving “the bubble,” one I imagine many small liberal arts teaching colleges experienced. Once you left the collegiate bubble, you would be exposed to a largely uncaring world of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and everyday bigotry, prejudices, and intolerances. You would learn that the world is sick.

This is where Oedipus proves most instructive. Destroying his life, he reveals to himself through his investigation that the world he knows is built on perverse ground. The historian faces the same task, destabilizing what we know of the past, exposing the process of how we got here. Unsatisfied with the explanation that appears through our over consumptive lives, she digs up aboriginal grave sites; shows the hidden memo; photographs the plantation. All of these actions point an accusatory finger at our forebears, revealing murderers, conspirators, and slave-owners. Did we think that the historian could unearth the past and be accepted in perpetuity into a system that wishes to put young people into the job market?

The historian need not blind herself in the revelation of historical inquiry. Everyone is already blind in her stead. We are inherently cruel as kings. Yet we cannot afford our own ivory tower any longer. This is utterly frightening but perhaps a truer place than our re-inscription in the American college. The way forward is uncharted and we may find ourselves adrift, wandering like Oedipus.

edwardsPaul J. Edwards is a graduate student and Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow in Boston University’s American and New England Studies program. His work looks into semiotics and psychoanalysis as a methodology for understanding space, time, and performance of the everyday. His current project looks at images of the Black American in German culture.

History in the Classroom

By Alexandra Buckley

“Why does history matter?” ask college deans and incoming freshmen – wearied with years of memorizing names, dates, and battles – as they turn accusing eyes toward our department. In some cases, university staffs have regarded history as one might view a batty great-aunt: an irritating burden, but one with too many years in the family home to evict now. Unable to argue that history does matter, these administrators have reduced the study of history to the study of basic literacy: one must read history books to write essays, so that one can write emails in the corporate future.

I hold out little hope for the deans and presidents of the academy, who will no doubt pack this great-aunt off to an asylum as soon as no one is looking. But for the freshmen, struggling still with periodization and presidents and paragraph formation, it is perhaps worth trying to answer their question. Why does history matter, in an age that looks only at the road ahead?

Studying history means living in the moment, as contradictory as that sounds. It forces students to open their eyes to the world around them, to articulate the assumptions that litter their day-to-day lives. What does it mean to be an American? Who pays, when you go on a date to the movies? Why? The curriculum developers are not wrong to associate the history department with literacy, but it is more than dusty books: studying history involves learning to read the textures and colors of our society, separating and investigating each moment in the mural of our lives.

In trying to understand the present, we wander ever back into the past. History is the study of what drives human action – and to find that, historians must step outside themselves. History is time travel, a brilliant escape into the Roman Senate or onto a pirate ship in the Indian Ocean to understand how motivations and ideologies have changed over time. But when we seek to comprehend people’s motivations, we also broaden our vision for the world, and for the future. What did “human rights” mean to Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation? What does it mean today? In Guantanamo Bay? In Russia? What would motivate people to act for the environment, or against the NSA?

Finally, history satisfies, in some sense, our craving for immortality in a secular society, where more and more adults have grown up without the influence of organized religion. Historians do read: books about men and women who are long dead, often forgotten for centuries. These millions of people who were never president, who never wrote Paradise Lost or invented the printing press are remembered and resurrected in history, in a way that we can each hope to be remembered – as a singular human being who existed in a particular time, shaped by her past and shaping her society’s future.

What is the purpose of academic history? Not to force names and dates down unwilling throats, nor to write books so dense with facts and jargon that no one will read them. We study history for the same reason we should teach it: so that we, and you, can see the extraordinary nuances and contradictions of societies anchored in the millennia before them and stretching into eras that don’t yet exist. So that we can see the multitude of lives and moments that created our world, in hopes that one day in the future, someone will be left to train historians to return the favor.

buckleyAlexandra Buckley is a PhD student at Boston University, by way of the Republic of Georgia and tall ships.


David Shorten, moderator:

Thank you to all the participants who contributed to this vibrant discussion. Because of the wide-open nature of the question, as well as the fact that we purposely kept you in the dark about the character of the other responses until now, what’s resulted is a panoramic view of the possible paths before us. Nonetheless, a few themes recur throughout this impressive range of responses.

First, many of you chose to consider academic history’s purpose by assessing its practical value. Andrew David, in his excellent contribution, contends that despite the declining enrollments at the heart of the academy’s present crisis, historical training has practical application in and outside of the academy, pointing to some valuable statistics in support of this claim. These considerations lead him to conclude with confidence that “the trend we face right now will reverse itself.”

In contrast, PJ Carlino takes seriously the university’s low valuation of professional history. Far from expecting that problem to correct itself over time, he astutely reminds us that “funding is the medium through which the public communicates with education,” and thus, in a world where academic funding is competitive, the historian must be more “visible” than he or she now is. His recommendation: the historian must develop a self-conception as not simply an academic, but also as a “performer” who serves a useful social function.

While Carlino sees practical value intrinsic to the discipline, desperately needing to be tapped though it may be, Sam Shupe goes a step further, arguing that we must re-conceptualize how history is conducted by abandoning the pursuit of knowledge in isolation. To this end, he turns the present crisis back around on us, the academics. Blaming our “self-induced quarantine” for the polarization of history into a popular form devoid of meaning and an academic one lacking the mechanism to convey its insights to the broader public, he seems unable to decide which of these developments is more alarming. Nonetheless, he argues forcefully that we bear responsibility for turning things around.

Whether or not historical training serves a practical function as it currently stands, many of you also located its purpose elsewhere, in the inextricable link between historical knowledge and politics. With this in mind, Patrick King asks, “Is it better to view the historical past as having an actuality for present problems?” For him, adapting history to the pursuit of politics is a pivotal decision, and, once made, “one finds that history is an inexhaustible source of stories and narratives” for bucking the deeply flawed institutions with which we find ourselves contending.

But our work need not always consist of overt activism. Lilly Havstad takes her inspiration to research African history from the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who warned us about the “danger of a single story.”  Repackaging the familiar and important reminder that “the victors write history,” she points out that all knowledge is infected with perspective, a limitation we must counter with yet more perspective.

This doesn’t only highlight the political function of the historian; it also serves as a powerful justification for the entire project of history. African history, diplomatic history, the history of consciousness — whatever field you’re in — your work expands the inherently limited perspective of human knowledge.

I was reminded of this idea only recently during an art history presentation while contemplating the fact that I just don’t “get” art. (The phrase “a picture says 1,000 words” really never resonated with me.) Whatever kind of intelligence it requires to interpret the meaning of visual representations, and however many applications those skills have, it will always be a criticism of my work that I lack them. That’s because it’s a standard in our field to criticize one another along these lines. For example, I’m sure anyone’s who’s been through a graduate program in the humanities can spot a Marxist interpretation from a mile away at this point, and then proceed to recite, without reflection, the limitations of such a method.

But that’s okay.

It’s okay because even if we are terrible at conveying our insights to the broader public, as Shupe suggests, historians do not work in utter isolation. Rather, we ought to envision history as a collaborative project in which every historian contributes a piece to a puzzle so that no work is expected to be truly comprehensive. I’m convinced that it’s this very diversity of opinions and perspectives — recreated in this forum — that makes our profession worthwhile. Both the resultant image we produce and the very process whereby we continually enhance it contain practical and political value for all the reasons listed above.

But what’s more, as Jeremy Shea, Paul Edwards, and Alexandra Buckley make clear in their contributions, this process is also philosophically profound. We are all (as the existentialists say) “thrown into this world” with its institutions, social structures, and wealth distribution patterns already awaiting our arrival. In subsequently learning how we are to live, we are equipped with nothing but second-hand knowledge of what came before us and worse, just our best guesses as to what comes next. In short, we have academic history, inadequate though it may be to address this gargantuan task to which it has been assigned.

dshortenDavid Shorten is a Ph.D. student at Boston University studying the history of the United States in the twentieth century. His research focuses primarily on the intersection of business and politics in the post-World War II period. His article, “What Happened to the Keynesian Consensus? Neoliberals’ Role in the Rise of Neoliberalism, 1940-1980” will appear in the journal Essays in History in the spring.