November 29, 2020

Historical Research and Storytelling

Here's an old favorite I transcribed years ago. Enjoy this excerpt from William Cronon's 2013 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, available on YouTube (picking up here at the 1:17:06 mark):


Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation but no one else will know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we've learned into the older, more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. That is where we join our other historical storytellers like journalists, novelists, dramatists, filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all of the other disciplines that look at history, which is almost all of them, to ask over and over again what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.

Carl Becker was right. Our ultimate responsibility is to living history, which withers into professional boredom if we only speak with each other and with our graduate students. The digital revolution has created endless opportunities via blogs, websites, youtube, social media, to connect our professional stories with the concerns of the wider world, making it possible for pithier, more visual, more topical narrative strategies to find audiences as never before. But they will only do so if we remember the lessons of our classrooms, where our specialized work reconnects with those who do not yet share our passion for the past.

That is why we keep revisiting the most basic and powerful stories even though their particular content is always changing, along with the moral lessons we draw from them. There is the story of where we came from and how the world got to be this way that is the great engine of public curiosity, especially for younger people who have little direct personal experience of the past. Much as our discipline may fear the teleological dangers of presentism, we cannot live without it since it points towards the backward path by which we guide students and readers and members of the public toward a past that initially seems completely irrelevant and disconnected from the concerns of the present.

Once we have reconnected the past with the present and established just how relevant it continues to be, then we can start telling that other great story - the one about the past as a foreign country whose inhabitants are as different from ourselves, so different that we can barely recognize them. And yet because their world ultimately became our world, and because their struggles with each other to decide what they did and did not want their future to become continue to shape our own lives today, these two sets of stories turn out to be far more intimately linked than we initially imagined. Together, they combine to create a third story about the world as given and the world as made, inviting us to reconsider a taken-for-granted present that can seem timeless and unchanging until we begin to view it historically.

Only then - only then - do we realize how much our present world reflects the choices of those who came before. Only then do we see how different it could have been had those choices been made differently. From these most basic of all stories about the past flow myriad others. They're part of a common heritage of humanity, which is why we share their telling with everyone else who narrates the past. That's what makes them so powerful and why it's so crucial for historians never to tire of telling them, no matter how familiar they may seem to us. Only by looking in the eyes of our youngest students and our own children do we remember how strange and fresh these stories were when we first encountered them ourselves.

Stories of people struggling for justice or democracy or freedom or progress. Stories of oppression, endurance, liberation. Stories of people seeking to understand the meaning of their relationship to God, or nature, or the state, or each other. Stories in which very small events or objects or ideas turn out to have much larger consequences than anyone would ever have thought possible. Stories that explore the intended and unintended consequences of the choices people make. Stories in which the things we thought we knew about the past turn out to be unexpectedly and importantly different from what we thought.

Stories about how we know what we know and how hard it is - how hard we have to work to earn that knowing. And stories of why different people understand the past so differently and why seemingly contradictory historical narratives can yield truths that are all the more profound when juxtaposed against each other.

More than anything else, though, we need to keep telling stories about why the past matters and why we should care about it. Nothing we do is more important, for only by telling such stories does the dead past spring back to life and become living history.


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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton