Bad History

Let me start by laying my cards on the table. In my darkest times, I often think to myself that all history is bad.

It’s only natural to feel this way. As an aspiring academic facing a (British) university system that has changed dramatically in the last few years, that has slashed funding for the humanities, devaluing the teaching and research that gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s hard not to feel that either the government, the general public, or the Almighty are rather indifferent to historical research. And the little voice in my head can tell me plenty of reasons why. Who cares about the funny little people you spend your time researching? What do you think people really learn from studying the family lives, emotions, or sexuality of our ancestors, beyond soft ideas of cultural relativity or platitudes about the importance of tolerance, reason, and understanding? Whose life are you saving with your ‘research’? Who will even read it?

Dark thoughts indeed, and not the kind of thing I need at the point in my career when I’m trying to make the jump from being one graduate student among many, to being one of the few who both want and are able to secure a full-time academic position.

When I was thinking about this yesterday, my mind wandered from my own insecurities and failings (I’ve quoted it before, and I’ll quote it again, David Foster Wallace on what we choose to worship: “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/20/fiction) … and wandered instead to the one of my favourite annual silly stories: the igNobel awards. These alternatives to the Nobel science prizes, in the words of their website, honour ‘Research that makes people laugh, and then think’ (see: http://www.improbable.com/ig/).

I think there would be quite a lot of interest in a similar kind of thing for history (or indeed other humanities). Just think of the number of times people in social situations comment to you about how ‘specific’ your research is, often meaning irrelevant and unimportant. Yet when I tried to think of a list of works of ‘bad history’, I quickly found my brain racing to find explanations for why apparently inconsequential topics are actually vitally important.

Think of the weird mind of the sixteenth-century miller, Menocchio, which Carlo Ginzburg used to probe how humble people in the Renaissance read books, and how oral and print cultures mingled in the worldviews of ordinary people (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Cheese-Worms-Cosmos-Sixteenth-Century/dp/1421409887/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407923338&sr=8-1&keywords=ginzburg+cheese+worms).

A different example: forty years ago, who would have been interested in the bizarre records that nineteenth-century schools, prisons, and other institutions kept about waist and height measurements? But the booming field of historical anthropometrics has revolutionized historians’ understanding of poverty and exploitation in the recent past by using these records to work out how well-fed and how healthy men, women, and children were.

And I could suggest many more… Ice-cream has an unsuspected history in the early-modern period, beyond social elites, that redraws historians understandings of consumption (http://past.oxfordjournals.org/content/220/1/35.extract)… A concern with sign language in the eighteenth century is the high road to a better understanding of the links between the epistemological concerns of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=1084)… People in eighteenth-century paintings didn’t smile because their teeth were so awful (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Smile-Revolution-Eighteenth-Century/dp/0198715811/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407924150&sr=8-1&keywords=jones+smile+revolution).

Off the top of my head, these are just some of the slightly weirder historical projects I can think of… yet all are excellent, demonstrating the power of the past to surprise and disorientate us, and the inventiveness of historians in reading sources against the grain. I suppose the term ‘bad history’ won’t really do for describing what I am talking about – ‘Research that makes you laugh, and then think’ – since it might suggest that what I mean is lazy history (not enough research and reading, poor argumentation, citation, and writing). I don’t want a bad sex award for history (http://www.theguardian.com/books/badsexaward).

Nor is this about singling out (and therefore inadvertently promoting) bigoted and wrong history (Holocaust denial and the rest of that ugly mix). Do not feed the historical trolls.

I’m not calling for a campaign against shoddy history (although perhaps we could do with a concerted campaign against some of the more mawkish and factually… problematic… drivel being produced to commemorate the First World War…).

Instead I wonder if historians as a profession might benefit from an annual award that promotes the weirder and more unusual types of research many are engaged in, in order to reach out to the general public and explain what it is that historians do, and why – despite seeming ‘specific’, even trivial – it can actually be deeply important. The baddest history, but not the worst.

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17 thoughts on “Bad History

  1. If you think history is bad you should try ignorance (to paraphrase Derek Bok) – so spread a little enlightenment around and nominate some historian for an IgNobel.

    The IgNobels are about making people laugh then think not just about making us in the noisy or smelly sciences laugh and then think!

    If, however, you wish to feel excluded you can always reflect on the absence of historians from the Darwin Awards given to those who have contributed to the gene pool by removing themselves from it! Though, of course, if your research was into Time Travel then …

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    1. William,

      My understanding was that the awards were to ” honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative ” ..

      but I noticed that the small print then says
      ” and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.” 🙂

      But having looked at the award winners over the years I’m sure there’s at least one historian somewhere with a sense of humo(u)r and achievements that made people laugh and then think and still meet the other criteria so the instructions are at

      http://www.improbable.com/ig/miscellaneous/nominate.html

      It looks as though the brief summary is just as (or more) important as the substantive work. But then I thought that Maureen Jurkowski’s work on “THE TAXATION OF ECCLESIASTICAL BENEFICES IN THE REIGN OF ELIZABETH ” didn’t quite live up to its title

      ‘I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES’, HUGH SEXEY’S THING: THE TAXATION OF ECCLESIASTICAL BENEFICES IN THE REIGN OF ELIZABETH In Hayes, Rosemary C.E.; Sheils, William J.(2013) Clergy, Church and Society in England and Wales c.1200-1800. Borthwick Institute for Archives. ISBN 978-1-904497-58-5

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  2. I might comment at a party about how “specific” your research is because I was favorably impressed. “Folk culture in the nineteenth century, with special interests in southwestern France, witchcraft, and werewolves”? I would read that.

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  3. I love history, not as a professional historian, but simply as an avid reader and as one who thinks that while life is lived forward it is understood backward, whether my own life or our communal life. Bad understanding of either (bad history?) can lead to some pretty messy life in the present–I think of our (speaking as an American) poor understanding of the political and cultural history of Iraq and most of the Middle East including history on the local levels of people like the Yazidi, the Kurds, and others. I do hope for a resurgence of the humanities, especially history since it is not enough to be skilled at doing stuff if we have no idea of whether it is the right stuff to do or makes sense in the context in which we want to do it.

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  4. History shouldn’t be bad full stop. We should learn from the past and learn from the mistakes that happened in the past centuries. History should be fun to learn, we should teach our children the history of our world. Yes there are rewards that have been giving out Willy nilly, those people who received them should of shown the research they found to others to prove those incidents actually happened. Nowadays its all hear say or in books that have far to many big words to actually understand but who’s going to argue those books? Is the text actually true? Who knows xx

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  5. I work in the museum industry and have real issues with the way WWI is being commemorated. There’s a lot of pressure to make it accessible for children, which often results in the ‘dumbing down’ (sorry, I hate that phrase but it seemed apt) of the history via some poorly thought out activity.
    Perhaps there should be an Obscure Nobel for all those areas of study that only a handful of people find fascinating – I’m all for celebrating the absurd, and there’s a lot to be said for learning just for the sheer joy of learning.

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  6. I think your ideas are quite justified but most of us dread history just by its name, and probably never try to peek deeper as you do. I barely touched any history except before exams though I think those trivial things you mentioned can add flavor to it and probably help in making history interesting. I’m still not picking up history books though. 😉

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  7. Maybe people see history as useless because it’s not taught very well in countries like the UK or U.S. Maybe if our primary and secondary education did more to foster a real human interest in history, and why it’s important we wouldn’t have this probablem. Also, if we value history, we wouldn’t have a society that cut funding for the research that enlightens us.

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    1. Having come to history later in life and having disliked it in school and college I see two things that I’d like to see changed in the teaching of history (Thankfully, the publishing of history is different!)

      Most of the “History” I was taught after primary school was not MY history. There was no Scottish History – we were taught the Coventry Blitz with no mention of Clydebank even though the bomb-sites we passed daily were still being built on. We didn’t hear about the Clearances or John Maclean or the tanks in George Square in Glasgow sent in by Churchill in 1919 (until we went to folk clubs in basements in Montrose St!) though we did get taught about The Enclosures and Appeasement. The “product” of History has to relevant to the learners.

      However what is more important in the teaching of history is teaching the “process “of history. How we “do” history is a core skill – looking at evidence and sources, both first hand and secondary, interpreting evidence, looking for corroboration and drawing conclusions and then creating the “product”. These are skills taught to scientists from day one and taught and used in English Literature from early on.

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  8. I’ve been writing history for years & I often find the people who live my books are those who hate history, or rather they hate what they know of history, which is sad. I also find that most of the people who like the quirky bits I put on my blog are not British. They are open to the odd corners of the past. Thanks for mentioning menocchio. He reminded me a lot of my grandad so maybe that was my link with the distant past. My grandad wrote on his last voting slip I refuse to vote for liars knaves & thieves. Bet that never got into a history book. Pity.

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