What is a historian?
Quite simply, a historian is one who studies and explains history.
Yet, that answer is deceivingly simple, because it’s a definition that hinges on the meanings of three key words – study, explain, and history.
History is a funny word that carries a double meaning. It can mean both the past, and what historians have written about the past. For example, the history of the American Revolutionary Era is one of events like the Boston ‘Massacre,’ the Stamp Act, non-importation boycotts, committees of correspondence, violent protest and destruction of property, economic motivations and relationships, and fierce debates over new ideas about governance, popular sovereignty, or the meaning of human freedom. These are things that occurred in the past, so they are history.
Yet, the historian does not merely chronicle such events. The historian’s effort to study the past entails a careful examination of the historical record, which includes both the evidence left behind from the historical period under consideration (i.e., primary sources), and what others have written about those events (secondary sources). Historians apply numerous methods as part of this examination – literary analysis, statistical evaluations of data sets (like voting records, for instance), anthropological-type methods of observation, logic, scientific analysis of cause-effect relationships, and many others.
The goal of applying these various methods to the historical record is to better understand, and thus better explain what these events and moments in the past mean. Explaining the past is to give it meaning, and these explanations are History – the body of scholarship produced by historians (the second meaning of the word I described earlier).
Historians are therefore interpreters who give the past coherence, rescuing the it from the jumble of “one damn thing after another.” Or as historian John Arnold put it, “The past is…chaotic, uncoordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess.”
Making sense of the mess means understanding it from multiple perspectives, as well. The history of westward expansion, for instance, is one of perspective. The perspective is even embedded in the phrase, “westward expansion.” For whom was this a “westward” movement? Who and what was “expanding” in that direction? How might western settlement and expansion be characterized differently if we were, as Daniel Richter’s title suggests, Facing East from Indian Country? What would we call it then? Encroachment? Invasion? An eastern wave of immigrants unwilling to assimilate to the existing culture?
This issue of perspective is an important one, because it helps us develop the ability to empathize with others who look, act, and think differently than us, both in the past and the present. And that ability is fundamental to maintaining civil debate and resolving differences in a democratic society. Democracy cannot function when large groups of people uncompromisingly treat the differing viewpoints of vast swaths of the body politic as completely illegitimate. The historical mode of thinking, as one rooted in the interpretation of evidence from various perspectives, is a check against such dogmatic, unyielding, and ultimately undemocratic tendencies.
This talk of History as interpretive, or its dependence on perspective, can make it seem as if History is arbitrary. While it is true that the claims and conclusions which historians draw from their studies are not final proofs, but rather suggestive insights, it does not follow that all historical explanations are equally valid. There are conventions and standards that must be met. Pertinent evidence cannot be ignored or left out of one’s analysis. The selection of evidence must be reasonably sufficient to answer the historical question being pursued. Evidence and methods must be thoroughly documented so that the validity of a historian’s interpretation can be reviewed by his or her peers, as well as by any other reader of that work. Scholarly historical claims are not arbitrary because historians are bound by these standards and the documentary record of the past.
People make claims about the past all the time, often to validate the status quo or to justify a departure from it. Politicians are especially prone to this use of history. Yet, unlike the historian who begins with a historical question, people who seek to employ history in this manner typically begin with an assumption, usually based on opinion or a de-contextualized, highly selective piece of historical “evidence.” For example, some people claim that the Republican Party in the United States has been the ‘true’ party of Civil Rights because it was the party of emancipation, or because it was a Republican (Eisenhower) who deployed troops to Little Rock in support of school de-segregation.
However, that claim ignores certain contexts and other events in the past – the intra-party divisions between “New Dealers” and “Solid South” Democrats; Truman’s (Democrat) order to integrate the armed services; Kennedy’s, then Johnson’s (Democrats) support for civil rights legislation; the political realignment that occurred when many southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond, left the party, eventually migrating to the Republican Party; or Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” (what evidence shows to be a concerted effort to convert a good portion of Democrats into Republican voters by appealing to many white southerner’s resentment of the Civil Rights Movement and the dismantling of “Jim Crow” laws).
Which political party presently advocates policy in the interest of African American communities and individuals today is a debatable question, but equating either present-day party with their nineteenth, or even mid-twentieth century incarnations ignores too much evidence, provides too little context, and fails to acknowledge significant change over time. It is, in short, bad history.
Because this kind of ‘bad history’ is ubiquitous in justifying or validating a host of circumstances or proposed actions, learning to think historically – addressing perspective, evaluating sources, and holding claims accountable to evidence, context, and methodology – is crucial to democratic citizenship in the modern age. This is a point which I have increasingly seen made in various venues, including Kevin Levin’s recent call for historical literacy in Smithsonian Magazine.
It is a call I would echo, because the world as it is now did not simply emerge as the result of disembodied forces. People have acted, reacted, and made choices that shaped the world in which we live. Understanding how and why specific choices were made, and identifying the consequences of those choices among varying groups of people, is vitally important. If we as a society can come to terms with those choices and actions, rather than vague references to “forces” like globalization, the market, or progress, then we take ownership of our ability to shape a different and better world through other choices and actions. In that regard, historical literacy is the empowerment and hope of our society.
 Owen Barfield, Unancestral Voice (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 94.
 John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13.
 Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Revised (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).