Collections: How Your History Gets Made

Last week, we talked about why the humanities – particularly the academic humanities, institutionally linked to universities – were important. So this week I want to explain how the academic side of history (the part that happens in research universities, a term I will define in a moment) leads to the history content that the public at large consumes.

I should note that I won’t be covering the ins-and-outs of actually doing historical research here; that’s a whole different (and much larger) project. I suspect I’ll talk about that some time in the future and I hope at some point to begin featuring the work of other historians here in the blog to give a broader sense of what the field looks like and the many methods we use to create new historical knowledge out of our sources. If you are really interested in a blow-by-blow of my own research methods and progress, I give my amici on Patreon monthly updates on my professional scholarly activities.

A detail of a blacksmith at work, from MS Harley 6563 f.68v, now in the British Library. The manuscript, a fragment of the Book of Hours in Latin, dates to the 14th century (1320-1330) and was produced in England.

Instead, this post is mostly about the connection between the various parts of history. It was motivated by a tweet declaring that “no one reads, thinks about or gives a single [ahem] about dissertations” and comparing them to a particular circular activity (you may click on the link or imagine for yourself what sort of activity is meant, I am keeping this essay family friendly here…). I’m not embedding the tweet because singling out the tweet isn’t the point: this is a commonly enough expressed view: “what is the point of all of these books, articles and conferences where academics talk to each other?” And that’s what this post is going to talk about: what is the point of all of the history work that historians of various kinds do and how does that work contribute to the public?

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What Is History For?

I want to be clear at the outset concerning the priorities of these various parts. It is the tendency in all organizations that every department views itself as the most important department. Sales will tell you that they are the ‘profit center’ and thus the most important; operations will tell you that without them, there would be no sales, so they’re the most important; management tells you that they are the ‘brains’ of the organization and so on. It is just as true within a humanities discipline: each part of the discipline tends to see its role as primary. But organizations do have primary purposes.

I am going to contend that the primary purpose of the discipline of history is to foster greater historical knowledge in the public, in order that the public can use that knowledge (and the skills that come with it) to make better decisions. That doesn’t mean lots of history knowledge is equally useful to everyone; one assumes knowing the history of, say, Portugal, is rather more important for the folks at the State Department who interact with Portugal than your average taxi driver. But the goal here is for the field of history to produce both subject-matter experts (who might advise government and companies on their expertise) and also a broadly diffused base of generally available knowledge (sometimes concentrated in ‘thought leaders’) that the public can use more generally.

Now the counter-position, held by quite a few in the research side of the discipline is that historical knowledge is sublime (on the meaning of sublime in this sense, see) in and of itself and thus the discovery of new historical knowledge has intrinsic value even if that knowledge is not subsequently communicated widely. I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for this view; there is nobility in discovery for discovery’s sake. Such a view would invert the field, with its public-facing elements existing only to provide funding for the real work, which would be academic research. I am quite confident that view of the field would relegate it back to the unpaid pastime occupation of the leisure class, to the detriment of the field and the public – for a field that partakes of public funds, we must remain focused on public benefit.

So I am going to chart the structure of the field – as I understand it – on the assumption that the key ‘output’ is historical knowledge and skills to the public. I should note that I am going to try to describe the field as it is, not as I wish it was.

Since this is a difficult topic to find images for and the internet is fundamentally for cat pictures, here are some historical cat pictures. This one, via the British Museum, is a 17th century (1623-1681) drawing of two cats (and a pig) by Dutch artist Cornelis Saftleven.

The Engine: Academic Research

In a sense, we can view the field of history rather like a car, with an engine that generates the power, a transmission-system that communicates it, and the wheels which actually deliver that power to the road (the road in this metaphor being, at long last, the public) – except in this case, it is knowledge that is being generated, communicated and delivered. We can divide the field of history into the same three parts: the engine (academic research), the transmission (what I’ll call ‘public history,’ although I am being a touch imprecise with the term) and the wheels (public education).

A flow-chart I made to help keep track of the various parts of this chain of knowledge creation and transmission. Rectangles represent people, rounded-edged boxes represent activities. Purple boxes are part of knowledge creation (the engine, in our metaphor), Blue boxes part of knowledge transmission (the transmission) and green boxes are part of education (the wheels). And of course the red box at the end – the point to which all of the arrows eventually go, represent the final goal: a more historically sophisticated public, able to make better, wiser, more informed decisions.
The large yellow box labeled “The Academy” is meant to cabin-in all of the activities that primarily take place within universities. I wanted to single those out because I have run into quite a few folks who will say, “ah yes, the humanities are important, but why do we need humanities departments?” This essay, I hope, will answer those questions, at least in as far as history is concerned.

The engine of the field of history is academic research: this is where the knowledge gets created. And I think it is important to begin by stressing this: knowledge is being created, not merely transmitted. One of the real mistaken views that I find many people have about the humanities in general and history in particular is that what we are engaged in is an act of pure transmission – that historians spend our days reading history textbooks really hard and teaching that knowledge.

But that’s not what we’re doing (I’m going to say ‘we’ a lot in this section because this is the part of history I consider myself to belong to). We spend our days (ideally) interacting directly with primary source material – that is the raw, unprocessed evidence of history. For most modern historians, this involves lots of archive work, plowing through records, memoirs, old news reports and so on. For very modern history, it can also involve ‘oral history’ – which is to say the rush to record down people’s memories before those memories are lost to the living. For pre-modern historians, we often have to rely not only on surviving texts, but also on archaeological or representational (read: artwork) evidence, or on texts inscribed on stone (sub-field: epigraphy) or still in the raw manuscript form (subfield: paleography) or on half-lost scraps of ancient paper (subfield: papyrology). As much as possible, we try to interact directly with the evidence without any sort of filter (we tend, for this reason, to learn the languages rather than rely on translations).

But we then have to process that raw material into conclusions that are useful to someone who hasn’t spent years plowing through our tiny subset of the evidence, which often in turn requires fancy historical tools. History is a fun discipline in part because you will find bits of almost every other discipline in it for this reason. By way of example, my own research has involved archaeology, epigraphy, metallurgy, chemistry, physics, statistics, biology and botany, agricultural science, meteorology, economics and, of course, military science (naturally in most cases this was mediated by subject experts in those fields).

More cats! This amulet figuring is a cast copper-alloy figure of a cat with two kittens and a (now partially broken) suspension ring from Late Period Egypt (664-332 BC) now in the British Museum.

So the academic historian gathers evidence, processes it using a wide range of methods (some peculiar to history, some not) and then writes down the conclusions (typically with copious notes so that the historical research could be replicated for confirmation). The end goal of this is the final written form of all of that work, the published research. I should note that the motivations which impel academic historians to produce published research aren’t quite the same as the role it fills for the entire field. For most academic historians, who work in universities, the sale of their research (book sales) are not a significant form of income (far too little to live off of), but rather their advancement within the university is contingent on their publication record: they publish to make their colleagues, who govern their tenure and promotions, happy. The university wants its faculty to publish because part of its appeal to students is the promise of learning from people who exist at the very edge of human knowledge. And more broadly, as you’d expect, many academics want to be well-regarded by their peers, and the door to that well-regard is influential research.

We can divide that research into two categories: field-to-field and field-to-public (which we will get to momentarily). Field-to-field (or ‘field-to-self’) is my term for published research aimed at other academic historians. It is this type of publication that is most often mocked as being a circular… ahem…activity, but it is actually quite important for reasons which will become clear in a moment.

Field-to-Field research is often written in a more technical manner, with much more detailed notes and with that smaller audience in mind. For books, these sorts of works are often published by university presses with fairly small print runs (often 600 or so) because the main ‘customer’ for the books are university libraries (who are purchasing for the academics at the university). Because the print runs are small, these books are often very expensive – the overhead of setting up a print run is being split over fewer copies. That bad feedback – academic works are unobtainable by regular people because they’re so expensive and they are so expensive because regular people do not buy them – is beginning to be disrupted by ebooks, but only just beginning.

Now the academic book is typically the culmination of a number of years of research and writing – as you might imagine, smaller steps are required. The two main steps are the journal article and the conference paper (and the latter’s cousin, the ‘invited talk’). Most academic disciplines have one big annual conference (for historians, that is the AHA, except for ancient historians, who often attend the SCS/AIA, which is the big annual classics conference) and then lots of smaller sub-field specific conferences (like SMH for military historians or the ICMS in medieval history, typically just called ‘Kalamazoo’ because that’s where it always is – I have no idea why my medievalist friends are so attached to that one place; they are a strange people, the medievalists. There are many other such conferences). Those conferences do a lot of things, but the key one here is the presentation of papers. Those conference papers are an opportunity for scholars, especially more junior ones, to present work in progress and get feedback on it (SCS/AIA has a reputation for the…let’s say “sharpness” of its feedback; other conferences may be a bit more collegial). Those papers are valuable not just for the presenters: for the rest of the attendees, it is a chance to get a sense of where the field is heading, what research may be upcoming, and what scholars are working in areas related to your own, with whom you might collaborate.

(As an aside, while you do generally need to be a member of these societies to present research, typically anyone may attend, though they are not free. That said, these conferences are not directed at the general public and the papers portion is regarded as a bit boring by professional historians, who mostly spend each day looking forward to the drink-and-hangout period at the end).

Peer-reviewed journal articles sit somewhere in the middle. Journal articles present finished research, unlike conference papers, but are (typically) much shorter. While most historians think and plan in terms of monograph projects (that is, big, single-topic, single-author books), that work often ‘throws off’ interesting research that doesn’t fit into the book, which is where many articles come from. It is also not uncommon to see a limited form of an argument or research appear as a journal article a few years before appearing in a fuller form as a book. As with conferences, journal articles are aimed almost completely at other professional academic historians.

(As an side, journals have come under fire a bit lately for publication standards. Journal publishing standards vary wildly within disciplines; the ‘best’ journals (typically with wide readership and solid reputations) are typically a lot more stringent with peer-review. We’ll talk about peer-review more in the future, but in a proper academic journal, an article must pass not only the editor, but the review of several peer academics, a process intended to ensure the quality of the research being published. For my own part, I would actually like to see an effort to hoax the journals in my field; I am confident they would not be taken in, but if any failed, I would want to know that too and revise my opinion of the publication accordingly.)

A late 19th century painting from India (probably Rajasthan)showing a lady and attendant attempting to restrain their pet cat from pouncing on their pet bird (in the larger image the bird’s cage, open, can be seen), now in the British Museum.

So why do academic historians spend so much time talking to each other? The answer is because the job of an academic historian is two-part. On the one hand, we are producing new knowledge in tiny bits, but on the other hand we are expected to be subject-matter experts on our entire subfield, when it comes to speaking to the public or teaching students. Consequently it is important for us to remain ‘up to date’ with everyone else’s research, which is why we spend so much time and effort (seriously, writing is hard) packaging our research so that it can be easily consumed by other historians (and then spend more time consuming their research). That helps in our research – because you need to know where the ‘edge’ of human knowledge is to push it outward – but also in our teaching and public outreach. This has become more important as time has gone on – as the field develops further, pushing out the bounds of knowledge requires narrower and more intensive study; the reason you don’t see the sort of grand-history-of-everything magisterial single-researcher studies that used to be done in the late 1800s and early 1900s anymore is because so much more knowledge has been produced since then that the only way to survey an entire field like that is as a compilation of all of the work that has been done.

This is also ties back to my contention last week that this is an activity – pushing the outer bounds of human historical knowledge – which simply would not happen in anything near the amount it currently does without the academy (by which I mean the sum total of universities and colleges) supporting it. Those small-run academic books are usually too expensive to buy personally or for local libraries to stock and journal subscriptions can be very expensive as well. Only universities are generally willing to devote the resources to get that kind of material, which makes historical work of this sort possible. And really, only universities provide the research time as part of their job-structure (at least, at research universities) to produce this material and still manage to afford to eat and make rent. I see no other way; book sales and crowd-funding will simply never support projects where it takes years to assemble the painstaking research for a single book. This research does not happen without history departments in universities.

And without that in-the-first-instance primary-source investigation, all of these later steps outside of traditional academia simply don’t get any material to work with. They – public historians, school teachers, enthusiasts, bloggers and YouTube video makers – are by and large dependent on academic historians to build that foundation of knowledge. Which bring us to:

The Transmission System: Public History and Historian Training

This is my term for the set of mechanisms that aim to move that knowledge generated by academic historians closer to the public. This middle layer is still made up mostly of full-time professional historians, but the tasks they are doing has changed.

Starting with publication, we get the first half of field-to-public publishing, where we find ‘general surveys’ (including textbooks, but also a lot of the things you’ll see recommended as a “good first step into <field/question/topic>”), along with companion volumes (a companion is a term for a type of academic book composed of a set of state-of-the-field essays which together give a reader a sense of the current state of research in the field; they’re fantastically useful for students and scholars trying to get their bearing in a new field) and textbooks for use at the college level.

The key thing for these books is that they are generally not presenting much original research (though there is often some!) but rather presenting a ‘state-of-the-field’ look at the field. They are an effort by academic historians to summarize and package all of the field-to-field literature in an accessible, compact form, for a variety of different audiences (for instance, the readers of companions are generally assumed to be scholars, graduate students or advanced undergraduates; textbooks may be pitched at introductory undergraduate courses; many general surveys are aimed at interested members of the public.) These works are important, because they serve as ammunition for other parts of the transmission and wheels – they are fundamentally teaching tools.

The other major part of the transmission system I want to note are public historians (who in a sense are also part of the ‘wheels,’ since they also communicate with the public). Public historians are the professional historians who work as museum curators, historical specialists at historic sites (monuments, houses, parks), and so on. They put together exhibits, craft the language for explanatory texts, preserve artifacts and communicate with the public; some public historians also do research, both field-to-field and field-to-public, although generally not to the degree or with the frequency as academic historians. The other thing that public historians often do is manage and maintain archives and museum collections – that is, the raw material of much academic research – so not only are they part of the transmission communicating history form the academic sphere to the public, they also maintain a lot of the essential infrastructure that the academic historians rely on.

This is a late Anglo-Saxon (10th-11th century) comb made of Walrus ivory, with two (probably?) cats on it, now in the British Museum.

And where, you may ask, do we find all of these wonderful historians? That brings us to the other major task besides research which academic historians do, which is teaching. The exact ratio of teaching to research that an academic historian does depends on the university. Universities are broadly split between research focused institutions (flagship public state schools, the Ivies, etc.) and teaching focused institutions (smaller universities, liberal arts colleges, etc.). To be clear, you can get a top-flight undergraduate education from either of these sets of universities. One day in the future we’ll go more into how they differ, but the main difference here is that a historian at a research institution is expected to do about as much teaching as research, whereas a historian at a teaching college is going to do a lot more teaching and a lot less research (though typically never quite ‘no’ research at all).

For the transmission, the group of students we want to focus on are our history majors, and even within them, a subset of history majors that intend to go on to be graduate students and professional historians. While a lot of students move through history classes in a university (history majors are rarely a simple majority of even intermediate history courses, much less introductory surveys), let’s focus on the majors for now. Like most academic disciplines, the expectation is that the field of history trains its own specialists – another reason to write all of that field-to-field research so that history professors are prepared to give upcoming historians a broad base of knowledge. Those history majors take a lot of history courses for graduation, after which they go a number of different ways. The largest chunk, around 20%, go on to education, with the largest chunk of that chunk teaching in primary and secondary education (read: K-12), but the majority of history majors go on to do jobs not directly related in history, which is not a bad thing. We’ll come back to them.

But a sliver of those history majors are going to decide to pursue advanced degrees in history (note: there are certainly history graduate students whose college degree was in a different field, but they tend to be a minority). Graduate students in history take a lot of specialized coursework in historical methods building up to doing some actual historical research (of the field-to-field sort, ideally), either to roughly the size of an article (a Master’s Thesis) or roughly the size of a monograph (a doctoral dissertation). Those graduate students then fill the ranks of the academic and public historians, along with (in theory) the top tier of K-12 teachers (you tend to see a lot more advanced degrees for history teachers in well-funded high schools, in particular).

The Wheels: Education

Finally, we get to the part of the system that interfaces with the broader public directly. Let’s start with all of the students in a history class who aren’t going to become historians (which is 90+% of them). In my flowchart, I marked the undergraduate classroom as part of the transmission system because it really is. As I’ve noted before, only a minority of people attend four-year-colleges or equivalent institutions; there is no hope of processing all of the public – or even a very big fraction of the public – through a college history classroom. That isn’t what a college history classroom is for.

Instead, the hope is that those students are going to go into careers in science, technology, business, medicine, politics and so on and they are going to take that historical knowledge with them, whether that was a major, a minor or just a class on the side. Consequently – we hope! – that knowledge and skills they have gained will be available to their organizations, making for better decision-making and leadership (as we detailed last week).

This manuscript page, showing a cat and a dog, comes from a 14th century French manuscript (18684 in the British Library, the page is f.53v).

The other big group here, of course, drawing primarily from history majors and graduate students, are history teachers teaching in K-12. Teaching at the primary or secondary level demands a second set of educational skills that we academic historians don’t need to have as much of; teaching young-adults is just not the same as teaching children. I’ll probably blog a bit on the art-of-teaching from the academic angle in the future, but I want to stress here teaching at any level is a skill. It is not enough – as I see often supposed – to know your subject. If you put a teacher who knows their subject but does not know how to teach in a room with any sort of student, adult, child, whatever, they will fail to teach very much. For my part, I consider K-12 teachers to be a type of historian, specialized in education but I know that many of my peers would draw a line between history teachers and the rest of the field. While it is quite common in some fields (Classics, in particular does this, as with CAMWS) for smaller regional conferences to target a mix of academic and K-12 professionals in an effort to keep the two groups in better dialogue, it seems to me this is less common in history, which is unfortunate.

Because K-12 history teachers simply reach more of the population (effectively all of it) than any other group in the history-powertrain. Consequently, it would be fair to view K-12 teachers as the fundamental end-product of the whole edifice: academic historians do research to perfect the history that we give to K-12 teachers (in their undergraduate courses) which they then deliver, en masse directly to the public. That would be a reductive reading of the system, but not wrong per se.

Of course also at the level of direct approaches to the public is what is called public engagement or public outreach. You are, in fact, being publicly engaged right now. Public engagement – done by all of the levels of historian (but often only called out as public engagement by name when done by academic historians) – are efforts to communicate our historical knowledge to the public directly. This includes history podcasts, blogs (like this one), and articles in traditional print and online media.

There’s also a publication form of public engagement, generally called ‘pop’ history – books on history often written in an engaging, punchy style for the general public, rather than an academic or even para-academic audience. Pop history books often have a poor reputation in academic circles, but I think there is real value to this kind of publication. Unfortunately – and this isn’t the place to go into this, so I won’t elaborate – pop history will not get you tenure, which leads to neglect in the academy and consequently the big pop-history books are often not written by the best historians in their fields.


And that is the system. Academic historians train new historians at all levels, teach undergraduates (in part to create a pool of historian-trainees) and push the bounds of historical knowledge, revising old theories or breaking new ground to make sure all of the other parts of the system (including other academic historians) have the most exact and useful rendering of the past. Public historians, graduate and undergraduate teaching then work to transfer that knowledge into places like school classrooms, museums and public-facing publication which puts that improved historical knowledge in the hands of the public at large.

If it seems like my treatment of public history and K-12 teaching were a bit schematic, that is not because they are unimportant (indeed, I hope I have shown quite the opposite) but instead that because that is the part of the system I do not do, my knowledge there is thinnest about organizations and practices.

I should also note that for the sake of scope, I’ve confined myself to professional historians – folks who do this as a job, for a living. But that’s not the entire discipline! Research and public engagement sometimes does come from outside this system, particularly in the form of several very motivated and energetic enthusiast communities. There is a sad tendency for many academic historians to view these folks as beneath them; this is a mistake in my view. As someone whose work borders one such enthusiast community (the arms-and-armor enthusiasts who often go by the label HEMA, although that community is increasingly more globally minded in its approach and I think ought to drop the ‘E’ from that label and embrace the global perspective), it can be incredibly valuable to have one of these communities adjacent to you. I firmly believe that the field would do well to nurture more of these communities.

Via Wikipedia, this is a late-18th or early 19th century painting of a woman feeding her cat by French artist Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837).

I do want to say that this system is hardly perfect; there are problems. Academic historians at research institutions in particular have a tendency to become blinkered, focusing only on their peers at other research institutions, at the expense of the rest of the field. And while in theory, new historical research would make its way directly to high school classrooms, in practice that process often badly hampered, on the one hand because many overworked K-12 educators are not given the time or incentive to stay current on the state of the field (though some do!) and on the other hand because the process of developing public school curricula is heavily politicized, often leading school districts to cling to outdated historical theories for decades after they were soundly discredited in the field proper (I should note this is not a phenomenon restricted to the United States, much less only some parts of the United States; there are history textbook fights pretty much everywhere – some European textbooks are downright startling in their treatment of world history and don’t get me started on Japanese textbooks covering 1930-1945).

At the same time, it is my distinct impression that compared to many other disciplines in the humanities history has a much better developed transmission infrastructure (it is really striking coming from Classics, which I think is very badly hampered in this regard and seems to have little interest in saving itself). And I think this is directly part of how history, as a discipline, has (so far) mostly avoided the catastrophic decline in enrollment and funding which has struck much of the rest of the humanities (although that may not hold; the Great Recession and COVID have both hammered the discipline).

This blog is my small part of that outreach, of course.

The fact is, we all somewhat intuitively understand that as the general level of history knowledge in the voting public and the policy-making apparatus declines, the quality of our decision-making and leadership declines with it (again, we discussed this last week). And so on the one hand it is very important for professional historians – yes, all of us – to be actively engaging in forms of outreach (and, as an aside, if your only form of outreach is political in nature, that’s probably not great; not that history needs to be apolitical – I don’t think it can be – but we do need to reach out to people who disagree with us politically and engage them too). And on the other hand I think it is important for the public to continue its support of the discipline, even when it doesn’t always like what the historians are telling it. After all, that’s what you (by proxy) pay us for: to tell uncomfortable historical truths, not comfortable legends.

I’ll close with Thucydides that if my work “be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” (Thuc. 1.22.4). That is what we strive to do, as a body, one whole discipline working (in theory) together.

134 thoughts on “Collections: How Your History Gets Made

  1. We spend our days (ideally) interacting directly with primary source material – that is the raw, unprocessed evidence of history.

    It’s raw data. The evidence cleverly hides in a lot of data that is not evidence. (As any computer programmer will insist after a long day torturing the data to get it to confess.)

  2. ” After all, that’s what you (by proxy) pay us for: to tell uncomfortable historical truths, not comfortable legends”

    I don’t agree that that’s what we (by which I mean America) pay historians for, at least, not usually. Not that that isn’t a valuable thing to do, or but in practice, I don’t think that’s what America’s been paying for. I say this based upon the state of our k-12 education.

    It seems to me that more often than not, what K-12 educators in America are paid to do IS to tell comfortable legends, and gloss over uncomfortable truths. Otherwise, how would we square the rhetoric that our we are “living in a land of opportunity and equality”, with the truth that our country’s soil was obtained with the blood of the indigenous people we committed genocide against, and that our industry was built by the enslavement of Africans and their African-American descendants. Slavery was a practice which was so engrained that even a very bloody civil war and a constitutional amendment was unable to fully stamp out, and which still lives on in a smaller, but no less awful, form in our prison system.

    In short, I find it baffling to me when people talk about American greatness and freedom, and American history education is in large part responsible for that common misconception.

    1. Unless you live in California no indigenous were genocided to acquire your land—well except in Texas, but that genocide (of a branch of the Plains Apache) was committed by the Comanche so it doesn’t really fit your thesis. The Trail of Tears was not genocide, though it was ethnic cleansing (the deaths during it were negligent homicide, and “genocide” means “murder”). The deaths in the Long Walk (which was smaller and I believe involved fewer deaths than the English “Great Displacement” of the Acadians) were not even negligence, but a pure accident (albeit one that should not have been able to happen), because the Anglos assumed Navajos knew wheat flour has to be cooked, and the Navajos assumed wheat flour can be eaten raw like cornmeal can—due to one of the very few real “tragic misunderstandings” of history, Navajo people starved while having adequate provisions.

      Only in California was there a policy of actual genocide, as in state-sanctioned ethnic-based murder. Well and I suppose the British did actively encourage the Iroquois to slaughter their rival nations during the Beaver Wars, in order to make their colonial enterprises more convenient, and some of the violence approached genocide levels. (No, nobody ever deliberately spread smallpox-infected blankets, that’s been debunked to hell and back. Amherst, the guy the college is named after, suggested doing it to the French-allied nations during the French and Indian Wars, but he was ignored. Even the British had some scruples, I mean it’s not like the Huron or Mi’kmaq were Irish people.)

        1. Virgin soil epidemics are not genocide. I’m trying very hard to be polite, but that’s a very foolish thing to say.

          1. If a people is deadly ill, and you move into their lands, steal those lands, and kill those who fight back, is it not a war of extermination? Have you not substantially contributed to the spread of disease, by taking from them the resources they might use to survive, and by adding another problem that they have to deal with aside from the spreading plague? If America had attempted diplomacy with the indigenous population in good faith, and attempted to develop a cure, then yes, there still might have been an enormous death toll, but certainly it would be far smaller than what actually occurred.

          2. Porter you are making a common mistake in evaluating the actions of historical people. You are assuming they have the same understanding of how the world works as we do.

            Also you are talking as if the conquering of the Americas was a single event. It wasn’t. It happened over centuries and was very different in different areas.

            The first understanding of how disease works didn’t happen until the late 18th century. So at the time of Columbus there was absolutely no idea that they would be causing the natives to get sick. They knew that disease could spread form person to person but not how and definitely had no idea that they carried germs the natives were not immune to (nor the idea of immunity). If they even realized that the sickness had anything to do with their arrival they would have seen it as a sign from God.

            Even at the time of the Jamestown and the Pilgrims there they didn’t understand how disease was spread. They still would have most likely seen it as punishment from God, though they probably would have known enough to stay away from areas with sickness in it. The idea of developing a cure would not have been seen as possible. In fact any cure would most likely have been seen as witchcraft

            Also there were negotiations with the natives at pretty much every stage of the conquest. Several years ago Smithsonian Magazine did a story about the forgotten wars between native tribes during the 17th century. The natives (who also didn’t understand disease) saw the Europeans and their technology as a means to use in their own wars with other tribes. The tribes could have easily banded together and destroyed those early settlements. By the time they realized just how many Europeans were coming it was too late. The tribes allied themselves with the French during the French and Indian wars as the French were more interested in fur trapping and trading than settling.

            Even with the Plains Indians there were multiple negotiations and treaties. The Treaty of Fort Laramie is one of the more famous ones. Unfortunately neither side upheld the terms and another round of war resulted. Then the US unilaterally annexed the territory. It is this final action that was declared illegal by the courts.

            In other places the treaties held. In South America the natives were pretty much forced to integrate into society. In Canada the tribes in the western and far north parts of the country pretty much got the best deals, mainly because there weren’t tons of people wanting to settle their lands

          3. @Porter Leete: Okay first off, maybe you’re unaware this dating system counts up instead of down? The conquests mostly happened before the big epidemics; the Europeans already took over before the people got sick. Also no, a “war of extermination” is one where extermination is the explicit, conscious goal.

            And actually, if you would read real history instead of Sunday-school moralizing in disguise, you would know that it was precisely the natives who weren’t taken over that were hit the hardest by disease. The natives of Spanish America were much less hard-hit because the Spanish were able to organize quarantines. The natives of where France and England were exploring and settling, on the other hand, were devastated, because the more hands-off approach of those powers meant they were left to their own devices. (Well and the Sioux also had this thing where warriors would dare each other to wear dead people’s clothes, to prove they didn’t fear ghosts.)

            It just took one group of explorers boating through to destroy the civilizations of the Amazon (with Neolithic tech you need a lot more manpower to maintain a civilization). That didn’t happen to Mesoamerica or the Inca, because unlike the Amazonians the Spanish had taken them over.

            Besides, the natives of Spanish America were not exterminated. You know Spanish America is still mostly brown, right? Exactly how “swarthy” do you believe Spaniards are?

          4. @Crash55: Actually the Spanish mostly left native power-structures in place for their first two and a half centuries or so, with the ruling class of Tlaxcala and the friendly Mayan states being recognized as nobles by the Spanish Court—like if the English gave Powhatan and his tributary chiefs seats in the House of Lords. The forced assimilation came long after, starting in the 1700s but really kicking off with the various republics declaring independence in the 1800s; I don’t know of one independent Latin American republic that wasn’t much worse for the indigenous than the Spanish Empire had been.

    2. It seems to me that the current white guilt history being pushed nowadays is becoming the new comfortable legends. The more emphasis placed on past tragedies inflicted on non-whites by whites, the more people can pat themselves on the back for being “woke” and reinforce the narrative “I am a good progressive, I am part of a wonderful movement of change”. Just like the past comfortable legends of white savior history, it’s only part of the overall story, selected for a specific narrative. Hence I agree with our host who doesn’t think history can be apolitical. It always HAS been political, used to either prop up or overthrow a regime or culture.

      Which is why learning history is so important, so you can see how the narrative stands up to scrutiny.

    3. >with the truth that our country’s soil was obtained with the blood of the indigenous people we committed genocide against,

      Is there anywhere in the world that hasn’t been conquered by someone, from someone? Outside a few Polynesian islands, maybe.

      >and that our industry was built by the enslavement of Africans and their African-American descendants

      not really, no.

      > and which still lives on in a smaller, but no less awful, form in our prison system.

      what a ridiculous assertion.

      >In short, I find it baffling to me when people talk about American greatness and freedom,

      In a little over 100 years, the united states went from a small collection of farmers on the edge of the world to the largest, richest, most influential country that ever existed, while their ideology went from fringe nonsense to the conventional wisdom of mankind. You might not like america much, but its achievements are unquestionably great.

      1. > what a ridiculous assertion.

        Hardly. Prison labor.

        > You might not like america much, but its achievements are unquestionably great.

        Some achievements. It also interned Japanese-Americans, segregated races by government policy, is completely failing to respond coherently to a pandemic, overthrew foreign democracies, destroyed multiple countries in pointless wars, brought back torture to the ‘civilized’ world. We continue to treat Native and African Americans like shit. We’ve established concentration camps for refugees and are tearing children away from their parents. Our health care system is used as a warning by the rest of the developed world. We fostered and exported modern Creationism, and generate most of the global warming denial.

          1. None of it is exaggerated, and so what if it’s non-unique? Do sins become virtuous if enough other people do them?

          2. No. What it does mean, however, is that singling out one country for practicing them indicates that you might have a bias against that country.

            And yes, you exaggerated. Badly. The US’s response to COVID, for example, while not what it should have been, has been about as good as could be expected given its size and borders–and with a CCFR significantly lower than most of Western Europe.

    4. It strikes me that, having rejected the comfortable myths, you have instead subscribed to the new uncomfortable myths: your assertions of “our country’s soil was obtained with the blood of the indigenous people we committed genocide against, and that our industry was built by the enslavement of Africans and their African-American descendants”- which is in fact the tone of most K-12, and college, history teaching today. And it’s just as inaccurate, and politically motivated, as the old mom-and-apple pie version taught in the 50s.

      1. But it’s not just as inaccurate. We really stole land, waged war, broke treaties, and forced Indians to the crappiest land around. We really enslaved millions of people. These things happened and their effects echo on. The whole US rests on stolen land.

        The industry one is more debatable; slavery certainly provided a lot of capital, but many people underestimate the role of technology and fossil fuels in building modern wealth.

        OTOH we can also say that the wealth gap between white and black households owes a lot to past and ongoing racist policies: Jim Crow, sundown towns, housing subsidies + exclusionary zoning, racist bias in enforcement of laws. None of this is a “myth” the way “Columbus proved the world was round” is a myth.

        1. Practically every nation on earth rests on “stolen land.” There is hardly one whose borders aren’t the result of military conquest.
          It’s one thing to take a clear-eyed view of history without rose-tinting, quite another to view it through shit-tinted glasses in order to masochistically wallow in “we suck.”

        2. I don’t even understand how one “steals” land on this scale. Did anyone who moved out of Africa technically steal the land? How long do we have to sit in it before it’s not stolen anymore? The native Americans are only native to America from a European perspective. They too came from Africa and one could argue “stole” the land from the virgin nature before.

          The Gauls and celts lived in England and France before their current ethnic groups. Is that land stolen? The Japanese islands used to have Ainu. Is that land stolen? The Chinese, the Ethiopians, the Persians, the Indians, on and on and on…

          Basically, can you define what it means to have land stolen? What’s the difference between Japanese treatment of the Ainu, Chinese treatment of the other Chinese ethnic groups, France not being 100% pure gaul, England being not Celtic, Turkey used to be Greek, Crimea used to Mongolian and Greek before that.

          Slavery, far from being a European concept, was responsible for a huge slice of the industry in the world over prior to the British using their imperial power to end it. America would give up slavery within 60 years of the rest of Europe doing it, and those societies were the ones who forced the world to abolish slavery, which was incredibly common in nearly all societies before then. Yes, African chattel slavery was particularly brutal and cruel, and obviously was horrible. But it’s certainly not unique to america to say slaves made up some of its economy in the past.

          Like… I don’t understand.
          Explain why only American land is stolen? Explain why America is bad because it has slavery in its past, when every nation from before 1800 does.

          To me, it seems like you’re just holding to a massively higher standard than anyone else. Let’s play a game. Can you think of a nation that was a world power that was committing LESS severe human rights abuses than the US in 1941?

          No. You can’t. But still america must be criticized. Criticizing America IS your comfortable myth.

  3. ‘…The engine of the field of history is academic research: this is where the knowledge gets created. And I think it is important to begin by stressing this: knowledge is being created, not merely transmitted. One of the real mistaken views that I find many people have about the humanities in general and history in particular is that what we are engaged in is an act of pure transmission – that historians spend our days reading history textbooks really hard and teaching that knowledge…’

    ‘Creating knowledge’ sounds to me a lot like ‘inventing propaganda’.
    I’m sorry, but that’s what that turn of phrase conveys to me in this context of the topic of history.
    If it’s a standard line amongst academic historians to state that you’re ‘creating knowledge’ my own feeling is that you have a reason for being specifically targeted for funding-cuts and for having courses axed right around the globe right there, and it’s a reason of your own making.
    Again, my apologies, and I am trying to inform rather than to give offence, but I am not a historian, and that is what that claim conveys to me that academic historians say that they are doing.

    Thank you for the article

    1. I think you mistake the difference between evidence and knowledge. A pile of ‘facts’ – some firm and uncontested, some doubtful in one degree or another, some inferential – is not knowledge. It has to be uncovered, collated, assimilated to what else is known, and some pattern established. If, for instance, a researcher establishes through collection of field names, analysis of potsherds and sampling of skeletal dna that Basque-speakers expanded in the early middle ages, then that latter finding is knowledge. The rest is evidence.

      In principle this is no different from collecting the data and establishing that, say, this aircraft crash was due to this cause, or any other process of analytic argument. It demands its own approach to evidence, but its certainly not propaganda.

    2. You forget that the process does not stop after evidence is gathered and conclusions are drawn by the authors. In fact, after all that is done, comes the phase of academic discussion. Academics scrutinize each other’s work and with quite a lot of fervor. There are very strong incentives to make one’s research sound and as resistant to criticism as humanly possible. Research that is easily disproved can stain the author’s reputation and hamper their career. Try to get enough nonsense published and you will get yourself fired pretty quickly.
      And not only is academic work scrutinized by the contemporary peers of the author, but it is also scrutinized by future academics.
      All these mechanisms prevent academic work from being mere propaganda, but that does not mean that it is impossible to produce propaganda and pass it for academic work.
      For example, historians of the 19th century produced industrial amounts of nationalist propaganda. How did this happen? Easy, the livelihood of those historians did not depend on producing sound research, either because they were already rich or because they were founded through institutions that depended directly on nationalist elites for their funding.

    3. We say creating knowledge because that’s the closest descriptor to what we’re doing. A historian who goes into an archive of material that no one has read in half a century or more, who then sifts that material carefully, discovers a pattern in it, and then carefully documents that pattern has ‘created knowledge.’ We now know of a pattern in the material that we didn’t know of before.

      I think the other term, ‘discovered’ is less apt; the person who reads the book that historian writes will ‘discover’ the knowledge of the pattern, but the researcher actually created it.

      It sounds to me like you have fallen into the trap of assuming that information about the past is generally known and all that remains is bickering about it in ever more creative ways. That’s simply not the case. Not even for ancient history (much less modern history where vast archives remain unsifted). Quite a lot of historical writing is either bringing new evidence to old debates or using the evidence to present an entirely new pattern (which may then become a debate to which further evidence is added).

      That process is functionally invisible and unintelligible unless you are deep into a historical field (the same way highly advanced math research makes little sense to those who are not already deep into the study of math), which leads to this misapprehension about what history is and what historians do.

      1. ‘Discovering knowledge’ I can get behind and nod along to. ‘Creating knowledge’ puts me in mind of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin doctor team, cooking up that dossier about Saddam Hussain and Iraq’s weapons capabilities on the eve of the Second Gulf War. ‘Discovering’ sounds to me like there was something there before, which has now been found out; ‘creating’ sounds to me a lot like starting out with nothing at all other than the experiences, temperament, and end-goals of the creator and making something up.
        ‘Discovery’ whether for good or ill reflects something in the real world, whereas ‘creation’ whether for good or ill reflects principally the creator and something which existed in their mind.
        I’m not sure where ‘invention’ would fit into this, mind you – possibly in a grey area between the two, which tends more towards the one (discovery) or the other (creation) depending on the particular circumstances.

        I don’t know if that helps clarify things, or just muddies them further.
        It does occur to me that there may be differences in the meanings of words here, across opposite sides of the Atlantic. (I’m a UK resident, and as far as I understand, you are a USA resident.) I am aware that some differences exist – e.g. ‘pants’ and ‘to table something’ – in what is meant depending upon which shore an attempted communicator comes from.

        (As an aside, actual information about the past, as far as I know, is falling into the sea metaphorically speaking and disappearing like Surtsey. Every time a person dies all the information and experiences which they had which were unique to them are gone, forever (unless you believe the supernatural exists, and have a reliable necromancer on hand to communicate.) One-of-a-kind documents crumble and moulder into dust and indistinguishable mush. Paintings are lost and destroyed. Carvings in stone are blasted and corroded by hideously efficient water or particles whipped along by winds. The gaps and cracks are always growing larger, helped along sometimes by those who intentionally want to eliminate facts and information.)

        1. Given that even the New York Times has admitted that Hussein DID have WMD, that’s an unfortunate example.

          1. That’s a misleading way of describing “some corroded chemical weapons from the 1980s were still around”.

            Hardly justification for our destroying a country.

          2. I don’t know what American newspapers have said/claimed, but here in the UK we have had at least two judicial inquiries regarding the Second Gulf War (Hutton and Chilcot) with Chilcot concluding (amongst other things) that Blair mislead everyone here in the UK with ‘intelligence’ from a source who was fraudulent and who some MI6 officers found information given by inaccurate and suspiciously similar to something out of a Hollywood film.
            Blair deliberately took the UK into the Second Gulf War, on dodgy information, with a strong suspicion here in the UK in the wake of the war and the enquiries that Blair did it at least in part to make the US president of the time happy.
            Blair conned the UK. What Chilcot didn’t pronounce on for certain was the possibility that he may have conned himself as well, which I can only presume is the main reason Blair has escaped trial.

          3. Given British intelligence was a big factor in American worries about Saddam’s WMDs in the first place, if Blair conned anyone he may also have conned the US.

        1. But the nature of distillation is that – as with smelting – you take a whole lot of some substance and apply a scientific process to it in order to obtain a *new* substance (plus waste products). If you distil wine into brandy, you can certainly say you have created that brandy. There was no brandy before, only the raw material for making some.

      2. ‘Knowledge’ is a term that refers to both the subject and object of the knowledge, in that knowledge has to be true. While ‘creating knowledge’ is a perfectly good way to refer to the subjective side of the term, it does also sound like something a follower of Foucault might say.

    4. Knowledge is “the fact of knowing things”, and it comes into being, that is, is “created”, whenever you know more things.

      “Creating knowledge” is a weird turn of phrase though; normally we speak of “acquiring knowledge”, though that too is odd because if nobody knows it the knowledge is not there to be “acquired”.

      One could probably get a linguistics thesis out of the idioms concerning epistemology.

      1. It’s like the difference between “creating” a car engine, and “discovering” that the internal combustion of certain chemicals can produce propulsion.

    5. This is a very strange way to look at the process. As the author stated to being with, very few people actually read books and articles written by the academy. I can’t think of any kind of actual “propaganda” that is read by almost nobody and seems to have no direct political purpose.

      History are the (hopefully non-fictional) stories we tell about the past. The knowledge being created is simply a new detail to the fabric of those stories. It’s not anything more complex or nefarious than that.

  4. That was the most wonderful and exhaustive description of historical science and how it operates.
    And you even managed to make it an entertaining read – you now have to face the logical consequence that I am sharing that text (i.e. link it) with as many people in my environs who are not fast enough to flee from me in 5 seconds…

    And I cheered when I found the part in the histoircal science machine where I now fit in (historian who works at the state archives, more in organizing than in teaching or publishing), with the same joy as when I can point out to people where in the NATO ORBAT of 1987 I was placed (Airborne Mortar Company 260 of the 26th Airborne Brigade of West germany).
    It is so joyful when one can exactly tell where in the machinery one works… 😀

  5. In this and the previous article (for both of which many thanks), you may have missed one great value to history. That is, that human societies are path-dependent. Their understanding of where they are going – still more where they are – is conditioned by their understanding of where they come from. This applies not just to the overall conception, but to study of the different facets. An economics without economic history is either vapid generalities or false, and the same is true of law or policy.

    The flip side of this is that history becomes contested – see the Daughters of the Confederacy.

    1. I dunno, the economic theory most insistent on its historical component, is Marxism—the single most boneheaded theory of any subject. You’re on firmer ground doing psychology from humor theory or electrical engineering from Chinese alchemy, than seriously trying to do economics from a Marxist standpoint.

      Also Hayek’s economics are a hell of a lot sounder than his understanding of history.

      1. That’s not what’s meant here. The people who talk the most about path dependence tend to be conservatives who are mostly definitely anti-Marxist. Path dependence means that there’s no one size fits all model of each country etc. but that each country’s history, traditions, institutions, etc. should shape what’s best to do moving forward. So, for example, if Country A has a really good healthcare system with good outcomes you can’t just transplant it wholesale into Country B, you have to consider all of Country B’s history and make a solution that fits that. Marxism is very much one size fits all and completely the opposite of this.

          1. “That is, that human societies are path-dependent.”

            Second line of the Peter Thomson comment that you were responding to.

  6. There are some fields that don’t seem to operate this way. I’m a reasonably serious amateur naval historian, and so far as I can tell, the technical history of warship deign is studied almost entirely outside the traditional academic system described here. All of the big-name authors I can think of (Norman Friedman and John Roberts spring to mind) are independent researchers, who appear to be supported primarily by book sales. There’s more traditional academic work on the organizational and “what happened?” sides, but even then a lot of that work seems to go to the general public more directly, thanks in large part to places like Seaforth and the Naval Institute Press.

    1. Not so sure about that. Quick sample: Friedman is retired after a career in national security, Ian Buxton is a retired naval architect, Jon Sumida an academic, NAM Rodgers at the National Maritime Museum. And they all benefit from access to the archives at places like the Imperial War Museum in London and its counterparts in Annapolis and elsewhere.

      1. I’ve read enough of their books to be well aware of the debt these people owe to archives. But that’s not quite my point. The people going through the archives are largely not traditional academics. Sumida is one of the most prominent exceptions, and he’s written one book. An important an interesting book, but a single book.

        The majority of Friedman’s work was done before he retired, and I assumed that it paid well enough to make it worth his while. And yes, a lot of the other work is being done by people who have retired from another job (DK Brown and David Hobbs both spring to mind). But very few of the people in question have PhDs in history, and even fewer are affiliated with traditional academic institutions. I’d do a sample of my shelves, but I’m in the middle of a move right now.

        1. Your comments about how a few former crewmembers of the USS Iowa would swear to you that the ship “moved sideways during a broadside” is probably not a bad example of why you have to be careful with primary sources, and they have to be cross-checked with other sources of information and (in this case) the laws of physics, or, more generally, what’s known to be possible.

        2. Yeah often technical history gets ignored by historians and you need to go outside of academia for the best information. This is certainly the case with the history of brewing (something I know a bit about, unlike naval design) where a lot of great groundbreaking work is being done by amateur bloggers who are completely removed from academia.

    2. There’s a lot of technical history outside the traditional academic system in almost any field, not just warship design. Perhaps because it is both easier in the modern period, thanks to more abundant sources, and also less contentious: there isn’t much doubt about when say 65 nm silicon integrated circuits become possible and what the tech needed was.

      Still, even in warship technical design there are academic contributors. On my bookshelves I have a lot of technical books by people like Friedman and Roberts, but I also have:
      Power At Sea, three volume set by Lisle A Rose, PhD in History
      The Battleship Book by Robert M Farley, PhD in Political Science
      Castles of Steel by Robert K Massie, Rhodes scholar at Oxford
      Sacred Vessels by Robert L O’Connell. Not a PhD, but published by Oxford University Press

      All of which include technical aspects as well as sociological and political. So academics are involved.

      1. I’m not sure I’d describe any of those as technical contributions. I have a copy of Power at Sea, but I haven’t read it, and it strikes me much more as a “general survey” than anything that’s likely to push the technical leading edge forward. Massie is a partial exception to this, but based on Dreadnought (haven’t read Castles of Steel yet) he’s a better diplomatic historian than a naval historian, and the contributions made were minor. (Some of this is the age of the book, and I don’t know how well Castles of Steel does.)

        As for Sacred Vessels, that’s just lowered my opinion of Oxford University Press. I need to order a copy. Fisking it will make an excellent blog post or ten. (I’m strongly of the opinion that the battleship is generally underrated in utility from 1939 onward, and just haven’t gotten around to writing up the case yet.)

        1. I don’t see technical history as a separate subject from other history, or indeed something that can be separated from political and sociological and economic history. There are books that concentrate on the technical aspects, and books that concentrate on other aspects. It’s a spectrum, not boxes.
          I also think Sacred Vessels has had a major impact on naval technical history. For those who don’t know what the heck we’re talking about, it’s a book about industrial era battleships, big gun warships, from 1991. What the author did, and why I assume Oxford University published it, was challenge the accepted narrative of technical progression. Dramatically. Not really discovering new evidence previously unknown, but more looking at the existing evidence with a fresh eye.
          The value of the book is not whether it’s entirely right, or entirely wrong, but in making people think, and re-examine their own ideas. I’ve definitely seen a change even in the most technically focused naval history books written since O’Connell. I read in newer books by the previously mentioned Norman Friedman and by R A Burt, both very technical writers, what are basically responses to the thesis of Sacred Vessels.
          That I think is academic history done well. A niche academic book has a ripple effect, and the history written for the general public improve as a result.

          1. It may be a spectrum, but if we apply the test “would these help our understanding of the technical development of the battleship if we’re at all an expert in the subject?” then none of these are anywhere near the technical end of the spectrum except maybe Massie.

            As for Sacred Vessels, I find that hard to believe. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on on this topic, and I learned of it yesterday. I also checked by Friedman’s British Battleships 1905-1946 and Burt’s two later volumes and found no mention of it. As for responding to it, the idea that the battleship was useless and should be discarded dates to about 1920. So any book about battleships after that point is likely to contain some discussion, particularly if its coverage extends to WWII. O’Connell is somewhat unusual in pushing the start date earlier than that, but the idea is definitely not original to him.

      2. I pulled my copy of Power at Sea, and went looking for technical stuff. And the first thing I found, while looking for stuff on the Iowas (because I know that best) was a glowing appraisal of the Panzerschiffe. Which is…not in accordance with current scholarship on the topic, shall we say. So yeah, I’m going to go with “academic contributions to technical scholarship are minimal”. There’s certainly academic use of technical scholarship, but that’s a very different thing.

        1. I’ve actually read the whole thing, and while it’s not a bad introduction to naval history between the Civil War and the present, it’s got several blind spots, and the post-WWII section is focused on the US navy to the near-exclusion of everyone else.

  7. You omit to mention Hollywood, which is probably the single most influential vector of dissemination, for better or worse. Many directors are conscientious and try and get professional historians on board to vet for accuracy, but many are shameless propagandists with an axe to grind. I don’t know how much damage “300” has done to the public understanding of Sparta, as you pointed out.

    My wife has a MA in History from SOAS in London, but her career was in the entirely unrelated field of children’s book publishing. I suspect most history grads have similar outcomes.

    1. I sometimes wonder if 300 wasn’t so over-the-top that it had the reverse effect; seeing a nine-foot-tell punk-rock Xerxes throwing war rhinos at the Spartans from his tent where he keeps an obese executioner with swords for hands might provoke the public into wondering what actually happened and looking into it. The counterpoint to this would be people who assume the obvious embellishments are the only embellishments and the thrust of the story is broadly correct, of course.

      1. 300 just flummoxes me. Thermopylae was a case where a totalitarian theocracy fought a pluralistic society with a limited government—so you can see why it makes perfect sense to use it as a metaphor for the US fighting the Taliban. If you aren’t pro-Taliban, that is.

          1. Persia was pluralistic, and indeed had sharp limits on the powers of its king somewhat reminiscent of American checks and balances.

            Sparta was totalitarian and effectively theocratic (albeit more similarly to radical Hinduism than to Islamist theocracy, just due to the nature of the religion of Greece).

        1. I think you want to be clear which you think is which, because I’d argue that the pluralistic society at Thermopylae was the Persians, the totalitarian state were the Spartans and none of these societies had a theocracy or limited government (the Persian great-king was not regarded as a god; that was a misunderstanding by the Greeks).

          Sparta, as I’ve discussed extensively on this blog, was essentially a totalitarian proto-fascist state. The Persian Empire was a tributary empire, which makes it pluralistic, but hardly cuddly; the powers of the Persian Great King were absolute – indeed, the Achaemenid monarchy is the model from which all subsequent absolute monarchies (including European ones) west of the Indus seem to spring (and itself borrows from earlier near eastern monarchies; I make this point to my students: the ‘western’ governmental tradition is a dual inheritance: republics from Greece and Rome, but monarchies from Persia).

          Even if we take Athens, it was hardly limited or pluralistic. The Athenian assembly was absolute in its power – it could and did vote people to their deaths. It could be utterly lawless – or more correctly, it could not be restrained by law (there was no law the assembly could make which would bind the assembly; there’s complexity here with the graphe paranomon, but that restrained individuals, not the assembly itself). And the Athenian citizenship – like almost all Greek poleis – was radically exclusionary. Citizens were required to have a citizen father and a citizen mother, there was no naturalization process for foreigners, slaves or illegitimate children and the general assumption was that the Athenian citizen body was – and was meant to remain – an ethnically distinct group.

          Now I don’t mean to imply that there were not governing innovations in Greece. The polis was such a thing – eleutheria and autonomia (understood to function at the polis, not individual level; if you want freedom as ‘liberty’ you must wait for the Romans) – are meaningful ideas. So is democracy. But I would hardly call *any* of the governments at Thermopylae limited, pluralistic or theocratic. And only the Spartans were totalitarian.

          1. That’s why it flummoxes me: Persia is clearly much closer to America, and Sparta to the Taliban or other radical Islamists. So using Thermopylae as an allegory for the Afghanistan War (or any other part of the War on Terror) might make sense for the pro-Taliban position, but certainly not for the kind of people who usually make the analogy.

          2. Persia was “pluralistic” in the sense that they mostly left their subject-states alone so long as they paid their tribute and contributed troops—its king also had some sharp limits on his power due to having to respect the prerogatives of the rest of the Persian elite (which I think also included the ruling classes of the non-Persian states).

          3. How is the idea that the Athenian assembly could make no law that could not bind itself different from the British principle that no Parliament may bind its successors?

            It seems that the description of that as “utterly lawless” is a very American description, seeing only the external law of the Constitution and judicial review as a constraint on legislative power.

      2. I still remember seeing the table of Gladiator tie-ins in the bookstore. One was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

        And remember discussing that over a table at an SF con and surprising someone who hadn’t realize that Marcus Aurelius was real.

    2. Even when they do try for accuracy, you can only be accurate about a subject you actually ask about.

      E.g. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (a novel, but I believe it was made into a miniseries or movie) boasted quite a bit about his research into the history…of the architecture. The social arrangements are mostly the post-Reformation landlord system read back into the Middle Ages, when they aren’t just hoary myths about “the Dark Ages”—because Follett assumed he already understood how that society worked. (He admitted he based his portrayal of the religious aspects on his own Fundamentalist upbringing, which is a bit like assuming you can accurately depict Vedic society because you were raised in a Chinese Buddhist household.)

  8. One that I think about a lot, but don’t have any good answers for, is analysis of battlefield tactics. When someone says that, e.g., Longstreet wasn’t to blame at Gettysburg, or that Beatty screwed up at Jutland, how do they come to those conclusions? How do I, as an amateur, evaluate them? And is that a sub-field of history dominated by academic historians, military officers/academies, or pop historians?

    1. Generally speaking that sort of analysis deals in two layers. There’s the initial structuring of the knowledge of the battle – which involves combing archives, reading memoirs and correlating sources (as an aside here, Parshall and Tully make this part of the task more visible in their history of the Battle of Midway, Shattered Sword, worth a read!); then there is the *evaluation* of that evidence. Both are important – history is evidence + interpretation and when it comes to this sort of military history (the often-derisive term is ‘drums and trumpets’ history; I do not share the general derision, but that is the term) the two can be very distinct.

      Campaign analysis like that is increasingly dominated, as I can see, by academics affiliated with military institutes and service academies; some of those academics are *also* military officers (I actually did my PhD alongside two very sharp US Army officers who had been *assigned* to get their PhD in order to teach at the war college). There are a lot of pop historians in this space, but they are often (but not always) beholden to the technical work done by the professionals. Academic historians not affiliated with military institutes and service academies tend not to do this sort of research because it is not highly regarded in the field of history more generally; I think that judgment is unfair, but it is what it is.

  9. An important question that follows from this (and that will hopefully be discussed in a later post) is what form public knowledge of history should take? Should the public be able to recall dates or should it have vivid images? Should it know one grand narrative for its country’s history or perhaps many disconnected stories about things that happened in the past? Should the open questions that academics discuss be transmitted to the public or only the things historians are relatively certain about?

    Incomplete knowledge about history with little ability to handle it might lead to worse decisions than ignorance. For example, if a person knows some facts about the Roman empire and also knows the fact that the Roman empire collapsed, they will try to imagine some kind of causality. Often one that isn’t well supported by the actual evidence. (Just yesterday I saw a twitter thread that said celebrity chefs were a sign of coming Imperial collaps. Despite the fact that the Roman celebrity chefs which they alluded to existed centuries before the “Fall of Rome”.)

    So how can historians transmit knowledge about history to the public that is actually helpful?

  10. This seems to trade heavily on the notion that ‘historical knowledge’ is definitely a thing, like a conceptual artifact, that historians can create and then transfer to others. Unless I siginficantly misread the post in defense of the humanities, the claimed primary benefit of the study of history to non-historians and society at large is the development of historical thinking as an analytical mode rather than the development of specialist knowledge.

    In light of this, can you give an account of what historical knowldege (a thing is more properly described as ‘created’ rather than ‘discovered’, which has ‘borders’, and may be ‘transmitted’) is, and how non-historians can use it to better accomplish whatever non-historical thing they are trying to do?

    If I’m off base and the difference between ‘historical knowldege’ and ‘historical thinking’ is a matter of language, can you discuss how the activities of academic historians advance or refine the practice of historical thinking? (Or is advancing the wrong metaphor, and like a humidifier in the mojave there is only as much history in the air as the academy produces?)

    If the above sounds like I want to talk about ‘what is knowledge’ I really don’t, I want to know what not-names-and-dates things historical knowledge is (are?), and what you do with that.

    1. I am using the terms broadly in the piece; I didn’t want to get too deep into theory-work. Historical knowledge are facts gleaned from the records of the past, whereas historical methods are the means historians have developed to reliably glean that information (close-reading, reading critically, source corroboration, etc). Historical thinking is the set of ‘habits of thought’ that exposure to the method ought to bring.

      There are different kinds of historical knowledge though. Yes, there are the names-and-dates level data. But consider a question like, “Did the population of Roman Italy grow significantly from 300-1BC?” That’s a complex question, with an objective answer which may or may not be knowable based on the evidence (in this case I would argue it is knowable and the answer is ‘yes,’ but there are scholars who disagree). That’s a second-order form of knowledge derived from the first set of data-points. Then, to take it further, you might ask, “Why did the Roman Republic defeat the Carthaginian Republic?” Or “Why did the French Revolution happen?”

      Those questions of causes actually have well-settled answers which are unlikely to change. There are answers and I think they count as ‘knowledge’ rather than mere ‘opinion’ (even in cases where there is considerable debate). And it is often that final, third-order kind of knowledge – ‘what were the causes of X event?’ – that is the most valuable for present decision-making by non-historians.

      It happens, but is less common, to see revisions in historical *methods.* But you do see it, especially if you look back over decades. For instance, noticing how heavily historians of the 1940s and 1950s relied on racialized thinking to explain causation, which simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. To be clear, this isn’t ‘they were bad because our politics have changed’ but rather ‘these theories were bad because they failed to adequately explain the observed historical evidence.’ Our historical method has gotten better over time. As a consequence to that, we (in theory) teach better historical thinking, which percolates out to the public alongside the steadily expanded and improved historical knowledge.

      1. Can you elaborate on how we should expect such articles of “what are the causes of X event” knowledge to be used by non-specialists?

        Is the theory that this knowledge will contribute to a better gestalt understanding that subtly but unattributably influences all (some? which?) decision making for the better? Or can we identify history-knowledge analogues of “I’m in this situation and need to identify the appropriate one of twelve varieties of cement to use”-type decision rules?

        Like I suppose you can learn about causes of the french revolution and walk away with the rule “don’t flippantly dismiss people who can’t afford bread”. But that seems to me more like coming up with a fun story to explain why you do the things you do, which is I think not something you endorse as a first-class use case for the study of history.

        In the spirit of describing the system of academic history as it is and not how you’d like it to be, what specifically do you expect non-specialists to do with the historical knowledge you work to create and disseminate?

        1. People who couldn’t afford bread did not cause the French Revolution. The urban professional middle class, who were excluded from representation in the parliament (unlike nobles, clergy, and landed commoners), caused it. So “don’t disenfranchise a large and deceptively powerful portion of your society just because they aren’t one of its traditional power-centers” is the actual takeaway there, and is obviously applicable to almost every political circumstance.

        2. One example of mistaken causes is the US Republican Party worship of the Third Ronnie in relation to the collapse of the the Soviet Union. “The Fall of the Russian Empire” by Donald James is rather more accurate … what I remember of the events of the 1980s – from the perspective of someone who had grown heartily sick of the threat of nuclear war gratuitously hung over everybody’s heads by their supposed superiors on both sides – was that the Soviets were throwing out things that they’d held on to for ages, that they were desperate enough to take New Zealand’s nuclear weapon free policy initially as a sign that it was wanting to come over to their side (which wasn’t the case). And that the Third Ronnie only came in as more of a spectator than a contributor with a few soundbites and only much later, a workable policy. Indeed, after a certain point, I’d describe the public statements of Gorbachev and Reagan as being more in the nature of electioneering than what we’d seen prior.

          This is a fertile field of enquiry – Garthoff in “Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan” has pretty much laid the foundation of a realistic appraisal. The problem is as I’ve indicated above, certain sectors find it more profitable to create myth.

      2. And it’s that method that I think matters most in teaching history to the public Teaching science is not about learning about the latest discoveries (which often turn out to be wrong or incomplete anyway), it’s about Feynman’s first principle: “You must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”, and about Huxley’s precept: “Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads or you shall learn nothing.”

        But you can’t learn those principles merely abstractly or in isolation from particulars, although within broad limits it doesn’t matter all that much which particulars you do learn. My grandson spent much of his 4th grade learning the history of sugar, not because it’s all-important that he know about sugar, but as a specific and highly relevant example on which to learn historical method: “relevant” to everything from racism to drug policy. Similarly he spent another chunk of that year learning about algae, for the same reasons of particularity and relevancy.

  11. After all, that’s what you (by proxy) pay us for: to tell uncomfortable historical truths, not comfortable legends.

    That looks like a comfortable legend right there. We want the truth, uncomfortable or comfortable.

    1. A truth that’s comfortable to one will likely be uncomfortable to their opponents, and vice-versa. Truth is apolitical, but our comfort with it depends on which end of it we stand on.

  12. For the most part it sounded like every other research department – publish or perish.

    Has the field of history become plagued with pay to publish journals that I see more and more of in the engineering fields? The number of these have exploded in the last decade or so. Pay the rather hefty fees and somehow anything gets past peer review.

    In engineering our conference come in several flavors: they large (4 – 10k attendee) ones with as many as 30 parrellel sessions, often centered on a specific engineering field; the smaller ones (few hundred) focused on a topic area – pressure vessels, composites, shock and vibration, etc; and the specific topic ones (150 or less) – high temperature composites, nano materials, railguns, etc. Some take any submissions and some are peer reviewed. Does History wind up with such a range of conferences? I like to bounce around between the different types. Good connections at the small ones. Good swag at the exhibition halls in the big ones.

    One contact method I didn’t see mentioned was magazines aimed at enthusiasts in the general public. I read several archaeology magazines that present articles on current research aimed at the interested layman.

  13. It’s fun to see the similarities and differences between the end goals of scientific research and the end goals of history research. Everything’s really quite close, with the exception that scientists almost never write books; our end product is the journal article. Scientists also seem to have much more disdain for the transmission of knowledge to the public side of things. Most professors seem to be far more interested in research than in teaching. In my opinion, the teaching and research side of things needs a bit more separation at the university level. I’d rather take general chemistry from someone who loved teaching than from a research expert, since the former would care about the class and the latter likely wouldn’t. Research expertise really only pays off in teaching once you get the the most advanced undergrad and graduate courses.

    1. Yeah I was thinking the whole research and publish thing is the same for me at a research lab as for a history professor. Several times a year I get an email asking if I want to write a book or a book chapter. I always ignore them as it seems like way too much work.

      Academic researchers in science and engineering do write books. When I was at RPI more than one of my profs made sure their new book was part of the course. It helped in that they knew where the errors were but they often weren’t the best books. Also as you mentioned, way too many of my profs were more interested in their research than teaching or were just bad teachers. I found the higher the level the class the better chance of a bad teacher.

      One prof was a the expert in his field (he figured out how to cut crystals to get specific radio frequencies- yes he was older than dirt when I had for a class 25 years ago) but couldn’t teach to save his life, He would tell you your question was stupid and would toss chairs around if he didn’t like the way the room was organized. I had him for a grad class and was lucky enough that that year he gave you photocopies of the notes as his handwriting on the board was horrible. A few years later they let him teach seniors and he reduced more than one student to tears.

    2. Exactly, which is why I don’t agree with the earlier post saying that the sciences and the humanities differ in methodology. They are in fact united at the level of method: both of them are based on scholarship that gathers evidence,frames hypotheses, and draws conclusions. Rather they are divided in what they talk about: the humanities are critical disciplines focusing the human, the sciences on the non-human (in the case of the social sciences, the human seen frrom a non-human perspective). However, mathematics is not a critical discipline at all: it is an art, like painting, poetry, or music, including even the distinction between fine (“pure”) and technical (“applied”) art. The arts also have critical disciplines attached to them like literary criticism and art criticism, though these are frequently confused with subjective attitudes toward art, and there seems to be as yet no field of “mathematics criticism”).

      1. I have read at least one history of mathematics which defined it as the science of patterns. That seems reasonable, and should fit it with the sciences.

        Then again, if political science and palaeontology are sciences, it is not obvious why history should not be.

      2. “… the humanities are critical disciplines focusing the human, the sciences on the non-human…”

        I don’t think this is a very accurate way to put it, and I think you’re ignoring the larger point Brett was making about the difference in methodology while focusing on the fact that both the Sciences and the Humanities are part of research universities (the “academy”), and so the people that work there both do similar things on the surface.

        The key difference is that mathematics is a core part of any scientific endeavor and has been since the start of the Scientific Revolution. The process is very straightforward: 1) the researcher comes up with a hypothesis, 2) the researcher tests the hypothesis using something measurable, 3) the researcher takes the results of those measurements and uses mathematics (statistics mostly these days) to see whether those results confirm or reject the hypothesis. The humanities, as Brett mentioned in that earlier article, can use mathematics, but they primarily focus on language as the fundamental units for steps 2-3.

        If something is not observable or measurable, it can’t be used as part of a scientific analysis, but it can be used in a historical analysis.

        1. If something is not observable, I don’t see how it can be part of historical analysis. For something to be a part of history, someone has to have observed it, and recorded the fact. OTOH, there is not a lot of math in the Origin of Species, and probably not much more in Lyell’s Principles of Geology.

          1. I think observable might have been the wrong word for Nik to have used here, but I think ‘measurable’ is probably right.

            A lot of historical arguments circle around things that are not measurable. Some of these are ‘dark figures’ – things that did have an exact value, but that value is lost to us and unrecoverable, or could never be measured. For instance, there is a longstanding debate over the size of the Roman population and the interpretation of surviving Roman census figures. Obviously, there is an absolutely correct ‘right’ answer to ‘How many Romans were there in 14 AD?” But we’ll never know that figure and consequently the argument really centers on readings of the evidence that are themselves not measurable and in many cases broadly resistant to math-centered analysis without *massive* simplifying assumptions – assumptions which often overwhelm the data.

            Then there are things which are not measurable because they are not measurable, even in the present tense. We cannot measure emotions, or cultural movements. We can occasionally measure *metrics* of those things (say, the frequency of google searches to ascertain of an idea is becoming broadly known), but that is a measure of the metric, not of the phenomenon itself. Also in this category are the value judgements: was a given action ‘good’ is not a question susceptible to STEM approaches; even if the consequences of the action could be precisely measured (and they can’t because the world is too complex), the relative valuation of each of those consequences is a question for theologians and philosophers, not physicists.

            Finally, there is the issue of complexity itself. One way that I see the humanities (and history in particular) is as an effort to interact effectively with historical evidence at a level of ‘zoom’ where human minds can handle the complexity. Because some simplification is needed; the idea that a computer could *perfectly* calculate the running of a human society is a boy’s philosophy from science fiction born out of an insufficient understanding of the raw, bewildering complexity of a *society* of hundreds or thousands of humans (each of whom is trillions of tiny organisms) interacting with countless chemical substances in a system where tiny variations do not – pace Asimov – do not average out in the long run, but actually compound in strange and unexpected ways.

            (If it isn’t clear already, I think Asimov’s ‘mathematical sociology’ is little more than magic and the fact that so many readers of Asimov take it as a scientific possibility is profoundly frustrating. It is divination dressed in science garb and nothing more; scientism, not science. And that’s fine for a book of fiction, but I find that many people take the idea that science can make the universe absolutely knowable seriously, when it is quite clear that it cannot.)

          2. Regarding, “Also in this category are the value judgements: was a given action ‘good’ is not a question susceptible to STEM approaches….” (actually in the other reply, for some reason lacking its own reply button, to the comment to which this is replying):

            In fact, much of the “E” in STEM is indeed about value judgements. We don’t build bridges that can’t fall down; we build bridges that we know will fall down under certain circumstances and try to characterize those circumstances as accurately as possible. Engineers have to think not only about how something might fail and how to prevent that, but whether they _should_ prevent that, or spend that time and money on something else. Is it better for society to expect a hundred deaths per year from failures in a thing and pay X as compensation, or is it better to pay Y to reduce that expectation to 80 deaths per year? There’s no scientific fact that will answer that question.

            One thing that might be helpful in answering such questions would be, “what happens to a society that lets ‘too many’ people die due to failures of engineered objects, and how many people is ‘too many’?” Oh, if only we had an academic discipline that studied such things! 🙂

  14. You say Classics is both making more effort to reach out to K-12 teachers via conferences, and hampered in its infrastructure. Can you clarify?

    Judging by the comments on the last post, seems more could be said about “what use is this knowledge, exactly?” I like reading history but I had trouble coming up with a clear answer. Apart from, being more aware of the diversity of human experience can make one more open to new ideas, and less accepting of one’s own society as the True Way. Though that may be more powerful for studying other current societies.

    1. > “what use is this knowledge, exactly?”

      Predominantly entertainment.

      Well, that sounds flippant. Of course, it can be roughly divided onto:
      — the interest in the knowledge itself — like exploring, let’s say, Diophantine equations (to keep with the blog topic)
      — using the knowledge for decision-making:
      —— technical decision-making related to the accurate portrayal of historic entities (Roman granary or T-34 model 1942 of factory #112 or whatever you need) — mostly for video games and movies and sometimes dioramas (essentially, entertainment/art)
      —— philosophical decision-making basing on the genesis of the question in hand and its perception by different actors, past and present, over the years — humanities-based leadership as described by our host in the previous post, from analysis and weighted reasoning through propaganda to nation-forming mythos, depending on the goals, interests and integrity of the leader
      — interest in stories of other people that we may or may not or want never to relate to — in the same vein as, let’s say, true crime stories or (adjacent) epic fantasy/space opera

      The latter kinda dwarfs everything else by sheer numbers, so, yes, mostly entertainment.

      Whatever is this entertainment used for, depends on the person.
      Maybe forum PvP. Maybe introspection. Maybe blue/red/gray/black-pilling. Maybe waste of time. Maybe a start of a lifelong interest. Maybe knitting. Maybe modding. Maybe good dreams. Maybe self-improvement. Maybe self-aggrandizement.
      Humans do damnedest things with their entertainment. Some marry fictional characters. Some stage an insurrection. Some press the power button off and go on with their lives.

    2. On Classics:

      Classics as an academic field is more engaged with its K-12 teachers, but it has only a tiny fraction of the K-12 teachers than history has. There are just not that many high school Latin teachers.

      But more broadly, Classics as a field is struggling to answer that “why should we fund you” question I posed with the humanities. Historians have felt the need to craft justifications for their study since Thucydides; Classics only had the need to do so really beginning in the 1960s. Before that, the question of ‘why read Plato and Cicero’ was self-answering because of the place those authors held both as gatekeepers to the elite and generally as uncomplicated ‘great men’ whose study was self-evidently necessary.

      Many Classicists are now deeply uncomfortable with or openly hostile to those arguments. But it is hard to see another form of argumentation, another way to make the argument that would retain Classics as a field (and more importantly, the tenure lines and funding it has). At most schools, Greek and Latin – two *dead* languages (Classics teaches ancient Greek, not modern, ofc) – have more faculty and funding than multiple modern living language departments (at my PhD institution, Greek and Latin have a department (classics) roughly the same number of tenured faculty as the Romance Studies department, which handles French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish). But the faculty in those Classics departments is typically unwilling – often for very good reasons – to assert the primacy of Greek and Roman (or even Greek-Roman-Egypt-Near-East) in the curriculum.

      Instead of making those big justifying arguments, a lot of ‘save the classics’ argumentation falls on ‘public interest’ functionalism, which ends up taking the form of “we need more Classics undergraduates so that we can train more high school Latin teachers so that we can have more classics undergraduates.” And it’s not hard to run the numbers and realize that ‘training high school Latin teachers in order to create even more high school Latin teachers’ is simply not a model which is going to justify a bunch of tenure lines. It leads to some good engagement between academics and teachers, but it won’t save the field.

      Ancient history will be fine – it’ll just move into history departments (which seems to me to be the trend anyway?), but Classics is in real trouble and I feel for many of my Classicist friends and colleagues who are going to get squeezed by this. Right now, the field is coasting on the residual good will the public feels towards vaguely friendly sounding names (Cicero, Caesar, Plato, Aristotle!), but with no effort to build up the public reputation of those figures as uniquely worthy of study, that goodwill is going to run out sooner or later; and it seems sooner or later is coming up pretty quick.

      1. I’ve often wondered why “Classics” is frequently treated as distinct field from “History.” I know tradition has something, perhaps everything, to do with this, but are there fundamental differences in what is studied in a classics department vs a history department?

        “Building up the reputation” of a Cicero, Caesar, Plato, and others as “uniquely worthy of study” does seem to be one fundamental difference. Indeed, is the political philosophy expressed by Cicero or that enacted by Caesar something that should be accepted as admirable?

        1. Classics is less like history and more like a university’s French Department (which would include French language specialists, but also French culture and literature specialists), back when universities had entire departments devoted to singular foreign languages (few do now).

          Classics as a separate discipline is a product of how the university evolved. From the origin of the university in the 14th century, a core part of learning was the study of Greek and Latin literature; it was natural that as you form specialized departments, there would be a department specialized in teaching Greek and Latin and the literature of Greece and Rome (and thus the culture of Greece and Rome). The term for that language-and-literature specialization is ‘philology’ (from Greek Phil (love)+logos (words); a love of language). Archaeology as a field emerged in the 1800s largely as an effort to supplement the evidence of Greek and Latin literature to better understand the Greek and Roman past, consequently, archaeology began in Classics departments and remains somewhat attached to them.

          You may consider the irony that the Archaeological Institute of America, the largest professional society of archaeologists in the United States, which covers archaeology of all sorts nevertheless has its annual conference jointly with the Society for Classical Studies (previously the American Philological Association), which is the professional society for Greek and Latin specialists.

          That long history means that Classics departments are unusual – they were interdisciplinary before it was cool (and when it became cool, generally such interdisciplinary approaches get confined to ‘curricula’ and ‘centers’ – that is, units smaller and less well-funded than full departments). The majority of most Classics departments are still the philologists (language specialists), who teach Greek and Latin and advanced courses on Greek and Roman literature and (sometimes) society. Most Classics departments these days also have archaeologists (they’re the second largest grouping by some distance), who often do the Greek-and-Roman-society teaching from an archaeological perspective. Then you have the grab-bag of other specialties: ancient historians, epigraphers, papyrologists, paleographers. Many Classics departments have no ancient historian (especially if there is one in the history department at the same university) but those that do are unlikely to have more than one or two; the others are even rarer. If you see two paleographers in the same place, run – it’s either an illegal book deal, or a conference and either way, you need to get out.

          1. Is the challenge for Classics essentially the one of: Why should (ancient) Greek and Latin get more resources than Akkadian, Sanskrit or Classical Chinese (wényánwén) – why should Plato and Cicero get studied more than Gilgamesh or Confucius or the Vedas?

            I think those, plus Hebrew (which is studied in theology or divinity departments), are the six ancient languages where an extensive literature survives worthy of literary study. There are a great many more languages with medieval literatures (Norse sagas, chữ nôm literature in Vietnamese, Arabic religious and literary writing starting with the Qu’ran, etc, etc.), but most of the other ancient languages only have surviving inscriptions or practical writing (books of accounts, letters) rather than literary writing.

            Perhaps the classics departments should look to extending to those other languages and literatures and to incorporate philologists from those languages?

  15. One of my favorite little quotes from fiction on this topic is, “Knowledge is NOT power! Knowledge is like coal. Dirty, black lumps of lifeless facts and figures. To harness the power of knowledge you must apply the fires of intelligence and imagination!”

    Of course, the quote in-universe is from an insane artificial intelligence possibly responsible for a complete social collapse, who then goes on to say “This is the difference between me and my so-called peers.” It’s also using the term “knowledge” in a slightly different way than you do here, but the core point of needing to actually perform analysis on the information available in primary sources to actually gain understanding seems similar.

  16. I unfortunately cannot comment on the article OR the many intelligent responses here, but I do belatedly offer a few proofreading corrections:

    talk about that some time in the future -> talk about that sometime in the future
    (As an side, journals -> (As an aside, journals
    and YouTube video makes -> and YouTube video makers
    communicating history form the academic -> communicating history from the academic
    in practice that process often badly hampered -> in practice that process is often badly hampered
    in the humanities history has -> in the humanities history has

    1. Another:

      “which is how the rural population ‘regulates’ to its food production in the absence of modern birth control”

      I’m pretty sure “food production” here should be “population growth” or something along those lines.

      1. I don’t think so, though it’s a wording I’m not used to. Key word there is ‘to’. You think he meant “how the rural population regulates its population growth”, I think he meant something like “how the rural population adheres to its food production”.

  17. Hmmm…once again, I am foiled by the coding; that last should be:
    in the humanities, history has (insert comma)

  18. There’s one thing you didn’t touch on that as a postgraduate History Student has fascinated me and I’ve made into a major component of my own work in the field, that being Television and Film and how they inform public perceptions of History. The power of modern multi-media to inform the public about history is considerable, and what kind of history these multi-media creations are presenting and why they say what they choose to say about the past is in my mind one of the most important things historians of today need to grapple with, especially in the modern age where fake history is just as prevalent as fake news and history is increasingly being used to push certain narratives. Televisual histories, especially the more fictional ones are often dismissed out of hand despite the power they have to inform people. My Master’s Thesis was on how the CW TV Series ‘Reign’ told the history of Mary Queen of Scots, why it bend and changed history in the ways it did and why historians should care about that.

    1. Yeah I se more and more people getting their history from movies. Unless it is obviously fiction it is usually believed as fact. Very few people take the time to check the TV show against actual history. With the History channel really becoming the ancient aliens fringe channel it only makes matters worse. I wonder how many people think the show Vikings is historically accurate? It has real events in it but shifts them in time to meet ve.

      Lately I have been watching the Last Kingdom and have bee trying to check stuff against what I can find online to see how much is altered for TV.

  19. Very good post, with two thoughts in response:

    1. This may be a “big project”, but it would be very interesting to see the ‘lifecycle of an idea’ in history go through your flowchart, with specific historians of each type, and articles, etc. For example, “Columbus was bad actually”. How did this idea start and where did this idea flow through the flowchart. Thinking of this leads to point number…

    2. I think that you left out of the flowchart, that _which_ questions historians examine strongly depend on the *values of the historians’ society*. This makes the chart into more of a feedback loop. Since all of the “people” in the flowchart are somewhat part of the “general public” themselves, there should be an arrow of “values” going back from the general public to each role in the flowchart. I will use feminism as an example: feminism was not developed within the historical academy! However, individual historians with feminist values were able to contribute a different reading of the same primary sources, and thus produce a novel historical product. “General Society” was contributing its values to “the academy” in this case.

  20. “The conquests mostly happened before the big epidemics; the Europeans already took over before the people got sick.”

    False. A plague hit the Aztecs right when Cortez was there, helping him a lot. The Incas were hit hard before Pizarro even showed up; half the leadership had died, including the previous Inca ruler. There seems to have been an Amazon civilization that disintegrated after one small party of relatively peaceful Europeans passed through to attest to it. Europeans never saw the Moundbuilders, de Soto’s escaped pigs seem to have done for them. The Pilgrims landed in an area recently wiped out by disease.

    Huh, you seem to even know about the Amazon, and yet you’re getting your other facts wrong. and the later book of that title.

    1. The “Aztecs” were a terror-state universally reviled by all other speakers of its language—you would need to be familiar with Uto-Aztecan anthropology to understand just why they are so disgusting—so forgive me if I do not pretend to be saddened by their defeat. Same for the Inca, a totalitarian oligarchy where it was a capital crime to be a bad housekeeper, not do your state-allotted job, worship the local gods more than the imperial ones, or express anything less than giddy enthusiasm for having your child sacrificed to the mountain-gods. (I believe also to look at the ruling class.) And they were not “exterminated”; their languages were both co-official with Spanish for two and a half centuries after the conquest, and have, respectively, and long after more assimilationist policies were put in place (first by later Spanish governments and then by the republics), respectively 16 and 66 times as many speakers as Irish does.

      And I was thinking of the big epidemics, which did indeed come long after the conquests—the one that Bartolomeo de las Casas, witnessing in Mexico, misinterpreted as deliberate massacre. I assumed Porter Leete was talking about them, since the rest of his fact-free moral grandstanding was just the Black Legend that originated partly in De las Casas’s idiot pamphleteering. That the Excan Tlahtoloyan and Tawantinsuyu were partly defeated (or rather that their populaces were liberated from their tyranny) by a pre-existing disease doesn’t change the fact the Europeans did not “genocide” anyone who died of those diseases.

    2. And so far from executing people for continuing to worship their own gods like the Inca did, the main thing the Spanish Inquisition actually did in the New World was punish forced conversions. The Spanish only cared about stopping human sacrifice, which was primarily a matter of the power-structures of the city-state alliances anyway, so there wasn’t even much disruption of the way of life for the average native, once it ceased.

      Similarly, basically all our knowledge of pre-Hispanic Nahuatl religion comes from Franciscan friars; they only burned ritual manuals, and consider the rituals involved if you are confused as to why. Whereas when the “Aztecs” annexed a state, they murdered all its scribes and burned its books, so that history would begin with Tenochca domination. (There was more extensive burning in Maya territories, I’m not entirely sure why.)

    3. …Are you really concerned to defend the proposition that the massive depopulation of the New World indigenous was due to the epidemic that Cortez took advantage of? Because that was not the epidemic that caused the depopulation Porter Leete characterized as genocide. The mass depopulation was due to the virgin-soil epidemics I discussed.

      It looks an awful lot like you’re moving goalposts.

    1. Which is the native labor-system taken over by the Spanish, since it works completely differently in Peru than in Mexico and in neither place much resembles the system used anywhere in Spain. Only the Spanish didn’t summarily execute you for shirking, the Inca did. (And for bad housekeeping, worshiping your own gods more than the Empire’s, and not being thrilled at having your child given a cocaine leaf to chew on and force-marched to a mountaintop to die of exposure as a human sacrifice.)

    2. It must be admitted that the Spanish worked their native laborers too hard in the encomienda system, resulting in a lot of deaths. Probably in part because what constitutes “enough calories” for a Neolithic agriculturalist who doesn’t have wheels (and thus has to stretch all its food-supplies) is a very different thing from what constitutes “enough calories” for an Early Modern person whose society has had wheels to cart in extra food, since before its recorded history. The Spanish idea of a work-schedule was made with European diets in mind, not Native American ones.

      Of course, the Spanish soon rectified the problem…by bringing in African slave-labor. (Though their slaves did have more legal rights than English ones, notably legally-recognized marriages and it being illegal to rape them.)

  21. Tom in Az and mindstalk are illustrating Bret’s argument. If they truly want to settle their dispute, they will need to turn to professional historians – people who have learned the languages, read the documents, pieced together the archaeological and other evidence, considered the hypotheses advanced and refuted in the course of debate and arrived at some current best understanding of what actually happened. In short, created as accurate a picture of the past as possible.

    1. Well one of us is repeating the most notorious historical slander ever, the Leyenda Negra, and the other is using the correct native names of the “Aztec Triple Alliance” and “Inca Empire”. So…

      1. You seem to be nitpicking alot of the details about the colonization of the Americas and your responses seem to run along the lines of “well they were dying out anyways because of small pox” and “the Conquistadors weren’t really that bad.” But you seem to be leaving out alot of the big picture stuff.

        1) Tens of thousands of people were directly slaughtered by the people invading the Americas.

        2) Millions of people died because of plagues introduced by these people. Many of them also worked to actively spread those plagues among the native populations.

        3) Their entire society was essentially wiped out and violently remade by these same people.

        4) Their wealth (mineral, agricultural, cultural, etc.) was carted back to the home countries of these people and they had to wait hundreds of years to get even a token repayment.

        5) The new societies were not governed to benefit the people living there, but were remade as a way to generate wealth that could be sent back overseas. This led to even more violent wars and revolutions as the people living there (even those descended from the original invaders) decided that the way they were being governed was unjust.

        Nothing you’ve said has countered any of these historical facts. Your efforts to nitpick this away or to introduce some kind of doubt into the record is absurd and I seriously questions your motivations for even making the attempt. In summary, the historical record for the colonization of the Americas does not look good for the people who did the colonizing.

        There is a real case for attempting to rectify some of these misdeeds, not just as some way to assuage guilt, but as a recognition that the end result of all of these activities was an unfair and unjust society that hurts people who are already vulnerable (due to the past historical actions) and don’t deserve to be treated the way that they are treated. Which is where we are today.

        1. “Many of them also worked to actively spread those plagues among the native populations.”

          Your evidence for this assertion?

          Remember that “many” requires evidence of many.

        2. And to put it bluntly, it was a society whose destruction was completely justified

          Just out of curiosity, what’s your opinion of the course Reconstruction should have taken?

  22. Hey Bret,

    this would most likely have been better at last week’s post, but I did wonder thinking about your post [1]: Where do you draw the line around the Humanities?

    At least in my mind the separation towards the natural sciences is quite clear, i.e. whenever there is a human-independent truth (or maybe fact) of nature to be discovered. That should take care everything from physics up to biology and medicine. And I just notice that I could just enumerate all I can think of right now in order to reduce confusion: physics, chemistry, biology, material sciences, astronomy and combinations thereof (I’m probably missing some).

    It gets more interesting when we are thinking about neuroscience, psychology, computer science and mathemathics. The former two deal with our thinking, which I assume your Humanities notion drives at, and the latter two are not constrained by reality, and thereby not _natural_ sciences. So I’m wondering where you, personally, would draw the line towards the more “mathy” subjects and towards the more “fixing humans” subjects.

    Finally there is the notion of social sciences, which I kind of sort of feel you would also not classify as Humanities, but maybe I’m wrong?

    [1] I think you kind of missed the reasoning about the funding. Though I agree that at least some parts of the “Geisteswissenschaften” (which I have a better grasp of what I count towards those, and I’m not sure how well that term translates to Humanities) should be better funded, basing that argument on a contrast to another field is wrong. All of academia is something that society as a whole finances, there is no way of predicting which scientific field is going to be “profitable” that is _literally_ the definition of science (at least in the natural science sense). Since there is no way of judging the value we cannot optimize in the sense of “if I take a bit of funding from here and put it there I’ll get X instead of Y”. And it makes arguments so much weaker to be constrained into the “but they get so much more funding and my stuff is also important” style of argument.
    The current crisis is the single _best_ argument why history in particular needs to be funded. It is the only test case we will ever be able to run on a societal level. Yes it is likely that this pandemic ends with an immunisation due to a vaccine rather than an “everyone already had it” situation, but that still means we need to stick through another year living with it. For how we can do effectively this history is the only resource to use to judge ideas by (and also to get inspired, but then ideas is typically not what we are short of).
    I found it rather sad, that you post read so, for lack of a better word, whiny, rather than actively making the argument what (in particular your field of the) humanities can offer and why they are useful. If rhetoric would be the only point, then you can do that on literally every topic. Yes yes, when you are doing it full-time you do it more often than if you do it as a side project, but then again, we would train less people to be able defend just about any argument, which I’d consider a plus.

    PS: I also felt that your post was somewhat US specific, as I’d be appalled if my university would force me (as a physicist) to take a course in history, just as I would be appalled to find that history students would be forced to take courses in the natural sciences. That does not mean they wouldn’t be useful, just that this kind of general knowledge is not what universities are for. Both because they don’t have the capacity and also because in university it is perfectly fine for a professor to fail all of his students. That does not mean, that there aren’t bad professors, but a university course is not something were you are spoon-fed knowledge. Either you want to learn, then you will have to find a way even (or especially) with bad professors, or you don’t. And in the latter case you just shouldn’t be at university. There are perfectly fine (and in my opinion highly underrated) options to be trained besides university. But that opinion is strongly influenced by my German university training. We were barely given an introduction in how to get our courses and nobody (from the university) would have cared if we would have failed. That’s not their job, it’s not school, where the teacher is responsible for you actually learning things.

  23. Someone already mentioned this, but can you comment on the prevalence of books in field-to-field transmission in the humanities (as opposed to articles)? As a physicist this always baffles me. While we do write books sometimes, they’re almost always textbooks of some sort, whether aimed at advanced graduate students, undergrads, or high school students. I can’t think of an example of a new claim or method that was first published in a book, rather than an article.

    Is there a reason why historians do this differently? It seems like waiting until you have enough material for a book would slow research down quite a bit.

    1. It’s the nature of the evidence, the argument and the audience.
      1) Evidence: historians are not generally working with a data-set where each data-point is interchangeable or able to be presented without comment. Instead, we’ve got evidence where every bit of it requires discussion of its flaws, peculiarities and so on. Imagine if you had a study of such tremendous scale that it was unlikely to ever be done again, but which gave valuable results *but* every single text group was flawed in some small way. You’d feel the need to explain those flaws in the paper – and suddenly you are writing a book.
      2) Arguments: Historical argumentation tends to be complex in that they involve a lot of moving parts. A key part of the scientific method is designing studies with as few moving parts (independent variables) as possible. The historian cannot do this because we are studying real societies in motion. That makes the argument complex, not “I tested X to see its response to Y, controlling for ABC” but “I traced the impact of X institution in Y society through 200 years of radical change where it is necessary to account also for the wars of A and B and also the emancipation of C and the suffrage movement of Y and….”
      3) Audience: Even a field-to-field specialist book needs to be readable by another historian. Human history is vast and so even a near-specialist – say someone who works in Roman law rather than the Roman army – might be missing key specialist knowledge that I’d have to fill in writing a book.

    2. “I can’t think of an example of a new claim or method that was first published in a book”

      Principia. Copernicus’s posthumous book. 🙂 In Biology, _Origin of Species_.

      Physics and chemistry lend themselves to relatively compact experiments. The useful chunk of historical evidence may be larger.

      I wonder how animal ethologists primarily communicate, book or paper? I can think of Goodall or Bernd Heinrich books but I don’t know if those are pro or popular. But “I stared at wild animals and their poop for 10 years” seems like it might better come in book format.

  24. Value of history:

    Currently the cost of not learning from history is 600,000 dead people worldwide, 140,000 dead Americans, and several percent of GDP. And counting.

    East Asian countries learned from recent history with SARS-1 and are doing quite well. The rest of the world could have learned from that just as well, but didn’t.

    Our own history with the 1918 flu has valuable lessons regarding lockdown schedules, which we have largely chosen not to learn from.

    The long term history of pandemics should prepare one to be paranoid about any new disease, because it could potentially fuck up or even destroy your society.

    The history of AIDS prepares me for the idea that a disease which plays games with the immune system may change the long term normal: just as unsafe sex with strangers became a persistently bad idea, so for the foreseeable future, functioning societies may require a mix of public masks and distancing.

    You could say disease is a SteM (bio, med) subject, but history is just as relevant here.

    History also has some lessons about climate change and societies. Or about committing your economy to resource extraction. Or about governments where it’s easier to veto things than to get things done.

    1. History is full of examples and of counter-examples. And even on a matter which should be lacking in ambiguity, there’s always ‘Well: we’re CLEVERER THAN THEY WERE’ to render any cautionary lessons utterly moot at a stroke, even when someone has actually sincerely studied history.

      Granted, once a catastrophe hits, people can grope around desperately in history books for cases of ‘Help? How did someone else cope with this?’
      Medieval textbooks (or older ones) on coping with a plague with (1) isolation; (2) distancing; and (3) plague-masks; seem to me to have been broken out for dealing with the COVID19 thing. (Although yes, the plague doctor equivalents of the modern era have a slightly bigger bag of tricks, including mechanical ventilators, for treating the seriously ill.)
      I’m just waiting for the government here in the UK though to start ordering the UK population to carry pomanders around… (Heck: has anyone tested cloves yet to see if they have any useful anti-virus properties?)

      1. I don’t know about anti-viral, but cloves certainly have significant anti-bacterial properties (so the plague doctors were acting quite logically, given that it was going to be centuries before anyone devised an instrument with powerful enough magnification to observe a virus).

  25. It wasn’t done as a “gotcha”, but didn’t Michael Bellesiles publish fabricated research in the Journal of American History?

    My understanding is that history is more focused on the publication of books vs articles compared to other fields, and peer review works differently between those.

    1. I think that’s actually a bit different. Bellesiles presented work which suggested a valid research plan and then he made up the results he wanted. Peer review can’t catch that in history or the sciences. The occasional ‘fudged results’ study gets through in biology and medicine as well. The best we can do is have standards for reproducibility – and indeed, historians attempted to reproduce and failed to reproduce Bellesiles’ numbers and ultimately falsified them (which in turn torched his career). That is actually the field working as intended.

      The reason peer review can’t resolve that problem is that your peer reviewers aren’t in a position to repeat your study most of the time, especially with archival work. What they can do is look at your methods, look at the evidence you present and the interpretation of that evidence. But the issue is that Bellesiles had falsified a whole bunch of probate records from an archive. No way for a peer reviewer to catch that. That’s in pretty stark contrast to the Sokal and Sokal-Squared Hoaxes, where the papers submitted were intentionally flawed in ways peer reviewers *should* be able to detect – flawed methodology, sourcing or frankly incredible conclusions that demand far better evidence than what the papers provided.

      It strikes me that the main difference is that I think only a trained historian like Bellesiles would have been able to produce a sham-study like he did. Without being read on the kind of records that existed and deep in historical methods, you probably couldn’t do it and fool a peer reviewer. By contrast, the sokal-squared papers were – by the admission of their authors – the product of only minimal engagement with those fields and so suggested that one might be able to get an article in those journals with very little, if any, actual training. And whereas Bellesiles was ultimately ‘caught’ and sanctioned by the field itself, the Sokal-Squared papers were discovered by *journalists,* which speaks to real problems at those journals they spoofed.

  26. I think there’s a more fundamental reason that planetary invasion isn’t possible against an enemy capable of hurting you. Space ships full of people are large and hot. You’ll see them coming from a very long way off, and if you’re capable of building fleets of such ships, you’re capable of putting weapons in orbit that can stop them. Missiles that don’t turn on unless ordered to fire, rail guns firing slugs barely warmer than the IR background, you can create thousands of such weapon for every one troop transport or capital ship, and whatever range the enemy can detect them at, they can detect the enemy much further away. Absent super science technology like star trek shields or FTL, I don’t see any way you could ever get close enough to a hostile planet to invade, at least not without astronomical resource disparities.

  27. “you might have a bias against that country.”

    I’m American, and thus most familiar with our own failings, and most offended by them. Also I was responding to someone gushing about how awesome we supposedly are, which itself was responding to someone talking about the undeniable whitewashing of US history.

    “while not what it should have been, has been about as good as could be expected given its size and borders”

    You contradict yourself. And it’s a ludicrous claim anyway. China is as big physically, far bigger in population, has even longer borders, was Ground Zero, and yet has far fewer cases. Even if they’re underreporting (as we are), they could have 100x the official case number and still be better per capita than the US. India is poor, also has 4x the population, and yet reports 1/4 as many total cases.

    Borders? The US has two land borders, both mostly closed now, and both irrelevant to the rapid in-country spread.

    A good response would have looked like Taiwan’s or South Korea’s. Neither size nor borders are relevant to learning from prior pandemics, having a unified message, coordinated policies… our problem isn’t size, it’s incompetent and fractured government, and a large chunk of the population rating selectively chosen ‘freedoms’ over scientific and medical advice — or historical knowledge.

    As for our fatality rate being lower than some countries, it’s not like we can explain why — certainly no policy is responsible. Getting more young people infected, perhaps. Or the fact that our cases are exploding, and the death rate hasn’t caught up yet. There is no country in Western Europe with a new infection rate remotely close to the USA. Or with a new death per capita rate close to our own. Plus we’re underreporting deaths; the excess deaths in Texas far exceed the official covid numbers.

      1. I said “Even if they’re underreporting (as we are), they could have 100x the official case number and still be better per capita than the US”

        Do I particularly trust their numbers? No. Can they hide over 99% of cases and extra deaths without anyone noticing? That’s another matter.

        An April article says Radio Free Asia guessed China was underreporting by 20x, based on reports about funeral home urns. But right now the US has 500x the case rate and coming up on 300x the death rate. There’s plenty of room for China to be lying and still be doing better than the US, which is utterly failing.

  28. Bret, I would suggest that one of the biggest problems at the transmission end lies in the fact that most K-12 history teachers have no background in history, beyond the quickie syllabus orientation they had to take when they were hired. The sad fact is that most public school teachers have degrees, not in the subject they’re teaching, but in education; and a B.Ed curriculum teaches no history (or math, or chemistry). It is quite true, as you say, that “If you put a teacher who knows their subject but does not know how to teach in a room with any sort of student, adult, child, whatever, they will fail to teach very much.”– but if you put a teacher who knows how to teach but possesses no knowledge to impart, they also will fail to teach very much.

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