Monday, January 28, 2013

Historians are like Tourists

"What are you studying? What career do you want?"

"Well, I am studying history and want  to be a historian"

A timid pause usually follows with a blank expression that screams 'A historian?  That seems boring.  What does that even mean?'

What does being a historian really mean?

In my opinion actively engaging in critical thinking about history is not just a profession, historian.  It is a mindset, a thought process.  Broad but narrow.  Momentary yet perpetual.

Being a historian means acting like a tourist in a foreign country.  Think about it.  Good tourists are well informed before visiting.  They are acute listeners and vivacious students.  They want to know about culture and why natives behave the way they do.  Consequently, historians are anthropologists.
In a broader sense, history is a study of change.  Historians are on a quest to learn behaviors and why these behaviors changed over time.  Historians study changes by identifying texts that answer certain questions.   Texts are primarily sources of the written word variety, but can include anything from paintings, plays and even music.

A multitude of conclusions can be drawn from a text, but mean nothing if not put in context.  The golden rule of historians inquiry is to locate texts in a broader context.  Expansive but limited.

On another level, historians are humanists.  They write narratives.  Tell stories, and identify actors and objects that tell a story in a certain way.  They are more concerned with origins and causes, than results and consequences.  Certainly, understanding results and consequences are an integral part of a historians work, but results are much easier to evaluate than to figure out why something happened at all.
Basically, the work of a historian is akin to a detective.  Asking question after question.

An easy answer to "What does a historian do?

A historian asks who, what, why, where, and when.....a lot.

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