By Juliana Adelman
As Lisa has already highlighted, the academic job market is currently in full swing (or half swing, given the ‘e’ word). Applying for jobs tends to turn one cynical in the best of times. The process of composing cover letters that summarize years of one’s life in 500 words or less can be soul destroying. The type of self-representation which is required by those engaged in the academic job hunt tends to reinforce the distance between ‘professional’ historians and everyone else with an interest in history. With this in mind, I thought it might be good to get a discussion going as to why we do history since I think this represents common ground for everyone with an interest in the subject. I have given 5 reasons below and I hope others will add theirs in the comments section.
1. I am nosy and I bet you are too. People like to know about other people. I have recently read (in On Deep History and the Brain by D L Smail) of a theory in neuroscience which suggests that gossip is a form of addictive behavior. Gossiping releases endorphins and helps people to combat psychological ‘slumps’. And really what is history at its most basic but a form of gossip? On a more serious note, history is a means of examining ourselves and may be considered, as Roger Smith argues, an integral part of what it means to be human.
2. Sometimes I learn something new. I am not being smart and I don’t mean that sometimes I discover a new fact, because facts are a dime a dozen. I mean that occasionally in my quest to understand events in the past I learn something about myself or get a glimpse of a different way of thinking.
3. At its best, history encourages imagination and toleration. When you research and write about people of the past you are trying to understand the actions and motivations of total strangers. You have to use your imagination (not too wildly) but you also have to try to overcome the urge to evaluate them within your own set of beliefs and expectations. I don’t mean to suggest that we should never make moral judgements about the actions of historical figures, but that the process of trying to examine events objectively is useful outside of history.
4. History is important. Kevin has written recently on the importance of contemporary history and its challenges. He suggests, with John Tosh, that good contemporary history has a role in combatting the serious and potentially detrimental impact of collective amnesia and myth-making in society. I would tend to agree and to extend this to history in general. To paraphrase, I believe, Natalie Zemon Davis, history can remind us that events can go in many different directions. Sometimes we have an opportunity, however small, to push them one way or the other.
5. History is fun. I’ve probably saved the most important for last. One of our interviewees suggested that if he had not been a historian he would have been a spy. There is an element of the detective or the spy in what we do. Hunting down clues and information is a satisfying type of intellectual endeavour. I always experience a sense of anticipation when opening a new source for the first time. Anticipation can be followed by elation or disappointment, but it’s the anticipation that keeps me going.