Glance at a newspaper. Listen to the radio. Watch TV. What you see is people creating news, stories, and yes, history. How accurate is it? When does something become history? Does a fact, an event, a person become history – or do we create history by creating meaning and significance for that fact, that event, that person?
Actually, in the modern field of history, we argue the latter. Not all facts become history, although they may very well be in the past. Not all past events or people in the past become history – and therein lies the point. History is a creation of people, in all their messy glory. What differentiates rumor, innuendo, lies, spin and rhetoric from history are the methods used: and that is what historians are supposed to do. We’re supposed to apply our training and skills to gather, analyze, synthesize and interpret evidence in specific historically-appropriate ways. And the evidence has to be examined carefully before being incorporated into the analysis, so source credibility is essential. Evidence has to be respected: just because we don’t like a particular fact, event or person doesn’t mean we get to ignore it, or exclude it from our work. Being human, we have to recognize that we are going to prefer one thing (event, fact, person, period) more than another. Being professional, we have to acknowledge the impact that those preferences may well bias our work and consciously take steps to mitigate any bias. We follow certain methodologies, document our process and sources, argue our point with colleagues so that our own search for meaning is itself credible.
And that is what professional historians do. Many of us get into the field because we’re fascinated by the stories of the past: the life of a medieval miller, the arc of change brought about by a particular process, whatever. Personally, I love what I discovered once into the field of history: research and teaching. My research takes place in a government archive in Paris, France. Hours spent in those archives, reading other people’s letters, gives me intellectual stimulation and historical insights I just don’t get anywhere else.
Teaching is a whole different rush. I teach World History, Ancient Egypt & Greece (and others), European history and various isms (nationalism, imperialism, decolonization, etc.). Some stories, but mostly I help students learn to use the tools of the professional historian: analysis, synthesis and interpretation of sources and communication of that work. Students are challenged to be apprentice historians, and most love it. Most realize that history isn’t about dead men, wars, kings or treaties – that it is indeed, a creative process.
History is not just what happened in the past, it is the interpretations created by generations of historians who seek out evidence and impute importance to that evidence in relation with other evidence, interpretations and contexts. All kinds of uses are made of the evidence by non-professionals in service of other goals, such as those by politicians, leaders of business and cultural groups, religious leaders and others. Some of those people may well be ‘professionally trained’ historians, but all too frequently they use and abuse of history rather than do it. They are not acting as professional historians, they are acting in the other capacity. Recognizing the abuse of history is tricky, but necessary. Recognizing the creative aspect of historical study is vital, challenging practitioners to constantly assess their own preconceptions and limitations and how those liberate and limit their analyses and interpretations.