In my experience, most research areas are widely at odds with the general public perception of them. From test tube toting chemists to philosophers ruminating on their mountain tops to mathematicians dividing ever-larger numbers, there is an overwhelming disconnect between what an expert researcher actually does all day long and what most people think she does.
But nowhere is this confusion more apparent than for historians – which is odd, given that, unlike chemistry or philosophy or mathematics, advanced historical thinking is overwhelmingly relevant to all of our daily lives. Yet for most of us historical knowledge remains equated with a sterile collection of dates: which battle happened where, which king reigned at such and such a time. Knowing those sorts of things may well improve one’s chance of success on a quiz show, but to confuse it with actual historical understanding is to miss the entire point of studying history in the first place.
For very much unlike the periodic table, history hardly reduces to some objectively true pattern that must be decrypted. Of course, some events happened and some didn’t, and it is part of being a generally educated person to be aware of the fact that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 and not during the Napoleonic Wars. But what is far more important is why we bother to remember such things in the first place: that what followed the Battle of Hastings irrevocably changed the culture, traditions, economy, language and general sense of identity of not only the British Isles but also of continental Europe.
Another way to put it is that while the Battle of Hastings certainly happened, it might not have. Or the results could have gone the other way, with William the Conqueror now universally regarded as William the Defeated. In other words, it’s the very contingent nature of history – that things didn’t necessarily have to have happened the way they actually did – that is the historian’s bread and butter: it’s their business to try to understand what underlying factors conspired to produce a given event together with what real human impact that event went on to have on the future. Since this research naturally involves a close study of the human condition, its results not only give us a framework for interpreting the past, it can also help us better appreciate our own present (To what extent do we learn from history?).
UCLA historian Margaret Jacob understands this in her bones. An expert on the history of the Industrial Revolution, her years of grappling with the motivations of 18th-century manufacturers have strongly convinced her that Isaac Newton’s revolutionary new scientific theories played a key role in transforming what happened on the factory floor.
“What really interests me is the people who tried to apply scientific principles to make them work. The problem of friction, for example, is an absolutely fundamental one and various approaches were taken, some of them purely manual. I think it’s wrong to separate science and manual labour, I think they belong together. I can show John Marshall in his Leeds textile factory trying to apply Newtonian principles to the operation of bobbins and to the problem of friction.”
Trying to penetrate the hearts and minds of other people is never easy, and attempts to do so with people who lived hundreds of years ago is harder still. And then there’s the added irony that it sometimes turns out that our current academic categorizations that were created to help us make sense of the past wind up making our task even harder. (How do our present biases impact our historical understanding? What methods do historians use to gain knowledge?).
“In my opinion, it’s wrong to see all of this as separated. We are the ones, our sociology, that creates “The History of Science”, “The History of Technology”, “The History of Music” and so forth, but that’s not the way that human beings actually experience the world.”
“Which is why I so often have issues with economic historians. It’s true that things have changed somewhat now and many economic historians are increasingly concerned with culture. But what still prevails among the majority of practitioners of economic history is a desire to find the single, sufficient cause: whether it’s abundant coal, high wages, or semi-literate tinkerers, there’s a sense that, There’s got to be one thing really causing this. And I think that’s a very flawed way of doing history.
“Now, people may turn around and say, “Well, you’re saying science is the one key.” But what I’m really saying is that it’s just one key. You can’t understand what happens on the ground unless you look at these people as thinking entrepreneurs and capitalists who are trying to work out problems. They’re bringing to bear the knowledge that they’ve learned in school, in private study groups, in scientific societies, and all kinds of places.
“If you leave that out of the story, you impoverish it.”
Howard Burton, email@example.com
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