Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On construction - a manifesto

"We construct history."

My current employment force me to think about such things on a daily basis. The idea is that the questions asked  will make my students think about issues they previously (possibly) have taken for granted. In reality, I suspect I'm the one learning the most from the experience. The students are goal-oriented; they have to be, given that they will need to pass their exams when the time comes. I am also eager to have them pass the exam, but I feel that in addition I have an agenda which is to not have an agenda. Studying with the
freedom to roam through personal experience in a field that has become mine with time - it's powerful.

Nevertheless, an agenda is constructed as I realize the more I learn of these things, the more insecure I become. Because, I realize, for the first time - really, properly - I am reflecting over what my field really is. What is history?

"History is not identical with the past, nor a reflection of it. The past is what we study; history is how we interpret the past."

It's my history, because I'm the one studying it. Certainly, there are limitations, and still a tendency to strive towards wie es eigentlich gewesen, even if we long since accepted that we can never completely know exactly what happened in the past. But we try to present it in ways that are as close to what you might call a "truth" (with all the limitations that term entails) as possible. We try not to invent or make up history, even if we do construct it.

I've constructed as different histories as modern Norwegian foreign policy, medieval political thought and current Middle Eastern conflict this semester. I'm working hard to tie them all to the ultimate history for a historian: why are we studying this? Why is this important? Why is history important (especially given that you just told us that we construct it, Ms. Teacher...)?

Why is history important?

It is easier, perhaps, to answer such a question in mode negative: why is not knowing history a bad thing?

A shameful and terrible accusation, that, being denominated "unhistorical" (historieløs). Having no concept of background and context, not realizing the importance of such things.

At the same time - doesn't it sound almost liberating, not having to take in the grievances of times past, simply worrying about the contemporary? Perhaps a certain unhistoricalness would be exactly what could solve troubles in well-known conflicts worldwide? What wold happen in the Middle East if no one knew what have already happened there? Can we learn from history? It doesn't seem that way. Can it aggravate us to make the same mistakes over and over again? Well... Maybe.

It is all too easy for historians, when pondering such questions, to end up without a backbone in the skeleton of our own profession. We're left with a pile of bones and no idea how to stitch them back together. Can we even call ourselves a science? Is there anything we can know for sure? Is history important?

Lesigh. Yes. Yes, it's important. Perhaps especially because we doubt ourselves. And definitely because we construct it. Certainly because - and despite - the fact that it is difficult to answer the question "why is it important?".

Everyone knows, intuitively, that history is important. Not being able to explain why, exactly, is what drives us ("us", as in "historians") to constantly question ourselves and our own profession, which in turn makes us excellent analysts. We are critical as few (several meanings of the word, yes; pun intended). We pose questions we might never get to answer satisfactorily, but we are nevertheless brave enough to ask them.

The construction of history - whether the interpretation of events past; or "history", the discipline - is key. It is what we need to do. It is what makes history important.

No wonder my students are confused.

1 comment:

Cold As Heaven said...

I have a friend who is professor in history. She told me that history is re-written about every 30 years, the time taken for a new generation of historians to grow up. Now it's the time for your generation >:)

Cold As Heaven

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