I have been musing the past few days about the need to have the work one is doing be valued, musings particularly amplified by this New Yorker article. The tl/dr version: the advanced study of history in the United States is becoming one accessible primarily to those who have privilege–it’s thriving in the Yales of the world, but history departments are being cut at state institutions of the type that most students can afford to attend. To quote the article: “The reason that students at Yale and places like it can “afford” to major in history is that they have the luxury of seeing college as a chance to learn about the world beyond the confines of their home towns, and to try to understand where they might fit in. That’s what history does best. It locates us and helps us understand how we got here and why things are the way they are. “History instills a sense of citizenship, and reminds you of questions to ask, especially about evidence,” Willis told me. In a follow-up e-mail after our conversation, Mikhail wrote, “A study of the past shows us that the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture, and economics.” As I commented, I am many things, but at the core, I am a historian in a society that increasingly thinks there is no value in understanding the past, or which thinks that critical thinking is some kind of ideological brainwashing technique.
The trends mentioned in the article are not new, nor are they exclusive to history. Increasingly, as tuition rates and student loan debt rise, the value of a traditional liberal arts education is being questioned. Not, as I allude above, in the Yales of the world, where simply graduating from a prestigious institution is often enough, but at the regular universities and colleges most people attend. So cuts to language and literature programs, to arts programs, to the humanities in general have been made as students are now looking at university not as a way to broaden their minds and to teach them to think, but as purely an exercise in career training. Those who are still choosing the arts and humanities are now often either those planning to teach at the primary or secondary school level, those who are independently wealthy, or those who have been singled out as the absolute best and brightest (and even many of those don’t make it). But even within the humanities, there is a hierarchy–and it’s those programs that look back–history of all kinds and literature–that seem to be suffering the greatest loss. We live in a society that worships innovation, the creation of the new, the discovery process. The past is the past–it cannot change! Therefore, it has no relevance to us in our 21st century world–or so the thinking seems to go. History, to continue on this tack, is a tale of immutable facts. Those who question this immutability–who seek to understand context, to analyze motive, to question, to put human beings back into an equation that so often omits them–we have no need of them. We can just Google it and find out everything we need to know. It is known.
Except it never is. To be a historian is to be insatiably curious–and to never be satisfied that our work is done. As time passes, the historical record grows and evolves with each passing day, minute, and second. Imagine history–in this case, the history of a particular event, place, person, or time– as a tapestry, and then imagine how the picture changes as each new row is woven. Sometimes new patterns are revealed. Sometimes the colours change, or the tensions of warp or weft. Sometimes the entire tapestry is cut free and hung on the wall, and the colours change, or it is stored away and forgotten, eaten by moths. It might even be cut into pieces and repurposed, its original shape lost.
This has come to light for me in the last week or two, in particular. Looking at the extant fragments of historical clothing is probably what spurred this particular tapestry metaphor. How difficult it is to draw conclusions from the few hundreds of extant garments from a period in which millions of people lived and died! These items are as good a primary source as one can get, but without context their utility is limited beyond their value as historical artifacts. Or their utility is limited only to the ways in which they can influence current fashion. A friend’s daughter is taking a class on historic dress, and has been bemoaning the required textbook’s one-dimensional look at medieval clothing–seemingly completely viewed through the lens of current fashion history. Thus, we hear that medieval shoes had 4′ long toes, said to be influenced by the elongated extremes of Gothic architecture–pure conjecture presented as fact. I understand how someone not familiar with history, particularly textile history, could make this kind of statement–after all, if you look in illuminated manuscripts, you certainly do occasionally see very pointed shoes, and you do see elements of Gothic architecture–sometimes on the same page. But the historian knows that correlation (the very limited fashion for very pointy shoes and very pointy arches being contemporary) does not mean causation. The historian also knows that illuminated manuscripts and statuary from the same period are full of thousands of examples of shoes that do not have 4′ long points–and that none of the extant examples of footwear exhibit such freakish dimensions. But that is clearly not the point of the class. Modern eyes love to find the extremes in the past–the everyday is often seen as “boring.” The required final project–a modern garment using elements of past fashion–certainly reinforces the view that “costume” –particularly its most extreme elements–is much more important than “history”–the much wider topic of what people actually wore in the past. And that might be fine, if you are a costume designer looking for inspiration–but that’s art, not history.
Even when we think we know, we often do not. You cannot survive long as a medievalist without a profound humility towards your sources and the knowledge that you–and they–are the diametric opposite of infallible. When you must posit a whole from pieces, or when your whole exists–but in 56 different manuscripts, each one a bit different (or sometimes, hugely different) you understand the truth has many layers and is always shaded by those of us who look back on it. Truths are sometimes best guesses, frustrating the person who wants black-and-white facts. It is not always known.
To be a historian is to be always asking questions, regardless of the topic or even the field, to always seek to deepen one’s knowledge. There are never too many books, articles, or sources, and there are always new ones forcing reevaluation. A new archaeological find, a manuscript buried in an archive somewhere, photographs found in someone’s private album, an interview with an elderly witness–the historian greets them with joy and sometimes a little trepidation, and embraces the messiness. Sometimes words do not mean what they mean, or mean one thing to some ears and another to others. Merely pointing out this sometimes draws scorn, especially from those without the depth of knowledge and context to see it. But there is rarely just one meaning to any act, to anything created by humans. And when those layers of meanings or new evidence upset the narrative of those with power, it often becomes particularly messy. Messy is inconvenient, especially to a society where increasingly the average person is encouraged to just keep his or her head down, to not question, and certainly, to not make a fuss, on pain of loss of a job, or worse.
This is why I strive to not worry about whether my work as a historian and writer is valued or “good.” The question should be is whether it is valuable. To me, it is more than that. It is vital that I do it–not only for myself, but because of those who sneer at research, critical thinking, and analysis. I read and research as an act of dissent from the narrative that claims these things no longer matter. It must be known.