After receiving an extremely positive review and amount of feedback from readers, I decided to do a bit of a follow up on this article that was posted earlier this year.
As I had mentioned in the article many of the items covered in this discussion are not exclusive to history. They aren’t even limited to liberal arts degrees. I am not attempting to debate the oversaturation of degrees or the existence of empty degrees. Those do exist, and it is a matter of fact that they are unfortunately here to stay. However, history is not one of these degrees. Many of the items I have seen lately has been tied to historians that are struggling to find their place in a post-COVID world. Many of us spent months, years, and still are spending time adapting to new and innovative ways to approach people with history. Likewise, we’re trying to find new ways to inspire a new generation of historians. That’s a daunting task as well.
At the end of this composition, I want to highlight a few historians that I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with over the last couple of years during this pandemic. These historians range from student to professional and have all walks of expertise and experience. They are, like I’d like to hope I am, a new wave of historians attempting to bridge a gap that has existed far too long in the profession.
Recently I accepted a voluntary position working for an Air Force organization as a historian that frequently interacts with children from the ages of 13 to 17. My interest in this organization is history, but it’s not a core component of that program. The cadets in this organization generally have a brushstroke of interest in history, but that doesn’t stop them from getting squirrely every now and then. One evening a newer cadet hit me with a “why are you so interested in history? It’s useless anyway.” This herein highlights a fundamental issue with the perceptive of history. It was clear he was riled up and joking, but that doesn’t change that some do perceive history in this manner.
I’ve deferred to a mission statement I presented to these same cadets (this particular cadet was not in attendance that evening) and mantra about what history is:
History is the study of the past, for application in the present, to prepare for the future.
Regardless of if you think you use it or not, the answer is that you do. You develop personal habits in your own life based on your own experience or requirements. You have a routine. Maybe it’s the order of your morning routine, or going to bed, or driving to work. Think to yourself: “have I ever changed my route to work because of road construction?” If you said yes, you’ve used history in a certain way, albeit rather simplified. The point here is that history defines the present, and by studying it in the past at the present, you can prepare and make decisions in the present and the future.
I get it…you think “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, but…
The truth of the matter is that you can understand history as much as you’d like, but if you can’t identify the items that are cyclical you aren’t performing your craft well at all. If you look at history on a grand scale, what you should be seeing are the cyclical repetitions of similar events and the evolution of the content within them. For example, the flu outbreak of the early twentieth century versus the COVID-19 pandemic of today. On the larger scale the cadence is almost identical, but there are nuances of difference between them. It’s these nuances that drive the change forward. Items such as ratio of mask evaders, event deniers, favorable response in treatments, changes in the ratio of each wave, and national impacts are all key items to examine.
But then you might ask “why” it is important for you to know both what is cyclical and what is nuanced. That’s an excellent question, and it underscores why history being underplayed is dangerous, and perhaps where that old adage actually is correct.
Understanding the cyclical events (some historians refer to this as historical analogs) allows you to prepare for events to better posture yourself to influence the nuances better. Consider this theoretical view of COVID-19 from a prepared historian and agency from 2018.
A historian reports that due to the nature of how viral pandemics emerge in the historical record, the present is due for an outbreak. The historian reports this to an agency that then orders them to examine the key shortfalls in the last emergence. That agency then uses those findings to better posture itself to tackle a predicted event thus changing those nuances to be more favorable for the outcome they desire. It does not attempt to prevent the emergence of the event, since according to history such an event is routine. It only attempts to (hopefully) positively influence the other variables in the event.
This is a proactive use of history, and it is the better application and understanding of the execution of history than the one that many people generally associate it with. Each historian has a role to play in these scenarios. Historians contribute to a pool of historical information that is used to direct the flow of information to the right sources with the right information whenever it is needed. That’s the importance of a historian on a grand scale.
“I can’t do history, I’m not good with dates.”
There’s an old joke about how the only numbers a historian is good at is dates. That’s all well and good (and sometimes true), but historians do tend to have the ability to command more numbers than that. Some of them are so uptight about numbers they’ll scold you for leaving off a decimal (we call them decimal-point historians), and those are generally historians that have nothing better to do than to be detrimental to the profession. All that being said, history is so much more than dates, you don’t have to remember specific dates to be “good” at history. In many cases, by remembering specific events, the date approximation falls into place naturally.
What history needs from you, for you to be a good historian, is to understand events as they happen in a sequence. For example, it’s rather important for you to understand that World War II happened after World War I. It’s rather important for you to understand that the Korean War happens before the Vietnam War. You might not be a professional without knowing that the Korean War happened 1950-1953, or that the War in Europe during World War II lasted from 1939-1945. However, you can have a wealth of historical knowledge and something to share just by knowing the sequence and understanding the significance and the players on the field.
The reason for history being forgiving in this way is because of one of the functions of history; remembrance. One of history’s key teaching objectives is to increase the memory of society. Being able to recall significant events properly, regardless of if you’re able to tack down dates, still benefits the memory of society in this way. Likewise, remembering things such as trials and error, functions, and people is significant in the grander scheme of a functioning world. Think of it as the global version of remembering where you put your car keys.
“History has to be taught in this way”, “history classes are so dry”, “there’s no room for humor or deviation in history education.”
There are a few things to unpack here, but I’m going to start by talking to some of the older professional historians and historical educators out there. Students, prospects, and younger historians should close your ears and your eyes here.
STOP TRYING TO FORCE EDUCATION TO CONFORM TO STERILE TEACHING ENVIRONMENTS. Fundamentally speaking, older historians that either refuse multimedia education approaches, can’t implement innovative teaching methodologies, refuse to accept alternative teaching profiles, and insist that there’s only one way to present any subject ARE THE PROBLEM WITH DYING PROFESSIONS. It has nothing to do with the students, it has everything to do with the instruction.
If you can’t appreciate or tolerate injecting humor into your lesson, you are the problem.
If you insist that a historian must act or talk a certain way, you are the problem.
If you insist that a historian must look, dress, or present themselves in a certain way, you are the problem.
The only incorrect way to teach history is one where it isn’t being taught at all (to include alternative history). That means you can learn history from historical gaming, watching historical media (regardless of how loosely accurate it is), or event talking about it passively as you do something totally unrelated. You won’t get me to argue about the difficulties on teaching in a virtual environment, but you will get me to argue that some people are capable of learning in that environment. There are plenty of methods that can be used to reach a larger audience if older historians would just stop clinging to this horribly incorrect perception that history must be taught in a very narrowly specific way.
I can count on a single hand how many museums have embraced digital media streaming services. I can count on all my appendages how many libraries have changed from closed-media formats to digital media services. For some reason, I can still only count five people (myself included) who will regularly present historical media on non-traditional media platforms. This needs to change. Urgently. We are missing out on a largely untapped source of exposure for a profession that is frankly on the verge of collapsing on itself.
For our younger people reading, you can read again now as I tell you this; I get it. Many historians have that problem with coming across dry. However, on the other hand some historians have some the greatest senses of humor ever. Remember your Social Studies teacher? Everyone had that one cool Social Studies teacher. My best advice is to try and supplement your learning experience by what your educator is failing to provide you with. Something stimulating and entertaining to grab your attention and bring the history to life for you. There are numerous virtual historical tours, staff rides, and interactive games out there for historical events. From World of Tanks to games like Assassin’s Creed, there are options out there to help provide an extra dimension to history to help inspire you in a way that can also help keep you engaged.
A Bit of Q & A
Some shorter bits here…they don’t need their own section, but they could easily have their own if I wanted to go off on them.
Q: I’m trying to push for my Masters, but I’m so burnt out. Is it bad to take a break?
Not at all. If you need to take a break, take a break. I would extend that to people with their bachelor’s as well. There are some things to pay attention to, however. For students in the U.S., you’ll want to look at how this impacts your financial aid and your program. Most schools will have you fill out a program hold request, and most will be more than willing to grant it. Student loans might be a bit pricklier, especially for graduate degrees. Check with your servicer and make sure you’re covered for a break like that. Not all servicers are the same and will have different answers. Just remember that being burnt out is normal sometimes. It’s okay to take a break, just try not to let it be a forever break and do what you need to do to bring yourself back into the program.
Q: I didn’t have the best GPA, can I still do graduate school or get a job?
You certainly can. It becomes more difficult, but if you are driven enough, you can still get a job. “Good GPA’s” are generally above 3.0. If you run below that, you might find yourself with a more obstructive time trying to get into grad school, but it won’t eliminate it entirely. Performing well in your graduate program can greatly improve your employment chances as well. Getting a job with a lower GPA can be done, but it may expand or extend a probationary period. It may also put you lower in the list of candidates, but it won’t remove you from the pool entirely. Show a pattern of progression and growth. If you can do this, it will satisfy any employer or graduate program.
Q: How do historians account for diverging commentary in sources, such as the kinds we’re seeing all over the place today?
This one comes down to “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” In most instances when historical events are unfolding there is a general fog that hovers over most information that is being pushed out. We saw that during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ll continue to see it for many events to come. However, the importance is taking all accounts with a grain of salt and understanding that somewhere between extremes is the truth. One side might be more truthful than another, but you may not be able to determine that for sure for quite some time. Always remember, even from a reliable source, you should trust it, but verify the information wherever and whenever possible.
Q: What kind of multimedia makes for bad history content?
As mentioned, multimedia is important for maintaining the interest of history to a certain degree. While I wouldn’t say ahistorical content is good, it’s not all bad. The fundamental message of the history should have its integrity intact. However, changes to history for political gains, specific visibility, self-insertion or identity-insertion, or fundamental modifications to historical accuracy are specifically dangerous and should be avoided from a standpoint of education. You can view these for entertainment but sanctioning of such content should be done so with caution. There’s a fine line between creative liberty and historical revision in entertainment, and many outlets walk this line habitually.
Some Good Stuff
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are a few historians that I’d like to highlight here before I wrap this up. These are individuals who are attempting to reach a larger and broader audience and bridge a huge gap.
The first of these is Dr. Angela Riotto and her podcast “A Helping of History.” I’ve had the chance to meet Dr. Riotto during a career orientation course and she was just an absolute pleasure to get to know. She hasn’t posted a new podcast in a while, but this is likely due to her acclimation at the Command and General Staff College. Her podcast is available on Spotify.
The second is “TheTattooedHistorian” (also “@InkedHistorian”). He and I have traded a fair number of thoughts and philosophical commentaries on the state of history over the past two years on both our Twitter’s and Twitch channels. Historical gaming is his catalyst for public engagement with periodic podcasts and talk shows as well. He’s passionate about history and exposing a whole new group of individuals to the profession.
Lastly on this list is the Queen of Tanks herself, Sofilein (@SofiGaming). Sofi’s had numerous engagements with many different U.S. and U.K. armor groups (including the National Armor Museum at Fort Benning and the Tank Museum in Dorset, England). She’s by far the standard for most of us attempting to establish digital media footprints in history. Like TattooedHistorian, she also does historical gaming, generally World of Tanks.
A few up and comers that I’d like to honorably mention are BoweryMickHistory, TheUnfilteredHistorian, and suzupoii. These three all have their own unique stabs on streaming, but all have a historical background and share a great passion for history. It’d be a mistake to not include them on the list of people attempting to add more bricks and layers to that bridge of history.
I may do another one of these still, but for now that is all folks. Don’t forget I’m on Twitch too (shameless self-promotion), and while we haven’t done as many history streams lately, I am always looking forward to talk some history with you.
‘Till next time.