Why are we Hating on Historians?

History as a study is based upon the written word, where the archaeologist studies pottery shards and bone fragments the historian studies writings. I feel that Smail misses this important point. The historian is not specialized to study eras or areas where there is not written record of any type. Historians consider their work as being more sophisticated than that of archaeologists and anthropologists because their source material is more accurate than that of the other disciplines. Once something is written down it is frozen in time, clear and unchanged. This is also the limitation of the historian – they cannot study the time before writing using their tools, so that is left to archaeologists and anthropologists to figure out which involves much more guess work because they are working with fragments of a picture and using them to draw a conclusion rather than having the unaltered writings of those who lived at the time. This is why historians may look down on the other disciplines because they make mistakes and may inject too much of themselves into their narratives. However, no one would argue, as Smail believes they would, that combining the disciplines makes are fuller picture and that each adds a layer of richness and detail to the history but it is simply not practical to make every paper and book a collaboration. Should they collaborate more often? Of course they should. All related disciplines should work together but they must also work separately in their specialties. Things have changed. As Smail points out, historians have largely abandoned the sacred history viewpoint. It still hangs on in the fringes of the profession and in the stubbornness of state boards of education setting out school history standards but the view point that he is railing against is mostly dead.   


Smail, Daniel Lord, Toward Reunion in History, Introduction from On Deep History and the Brain, University of California Press (2008)


Questioning the Past

At the time of this video (2000) and when Howard Zinn published his book (1980), the mindset about history was close-minded, especially at the time of the book being published due to the red scare. However, to claim that the mainstream telling of history is different from Zinn’s method of questioning is inaccurate. Today, the idea of revealing the hard truths about subjects such as Columbus and his treatment of indigenous peoples is commonplace in grade school and colleges. To believe that Columbus is an infallible hero is actually considered naive thinking outside of the mainstream. The idea of questioning a historical narrative was revolutionary 30 years ago when Zinn’s book was published, however today it is no longer shocking nor discouraged.

Americans today, young and old, are absolutely encouraged to question history. Teachers and professors now are the ones who were first exposed to this idea growing up, therefore they will continue teaching this open way of thinking to their peers and students. What Americans are discouraged from doing is questioning the present and future, not the past. When we begin to look at the past then question the present system and the future it is taking us, that is when discouragement and censorship will happen, such as the case with Noam Chomsky.


Zinn, Howard, interview on Booknotes: Book Discussion on A People’s History of the United Stateshttp://www.cspan.org/video/?155006-1/book-discussion-peoples-history-united-states