One of the most annoying things about being a historian that every random person on the street thinks they know more than you do about it. It really does drive me nuts. Luckily, I am very, very good at body language that does not welcome talking to me–an especially crucial skill while on a plane. But while we wouldn’t listen to some random dude on the street on how to build something–we would rightfully want an architect or engineer to do that for us–anyone thinks they can be a historian. This is how you have idiots like Bill O’Reilly out there writing “history” and it’s why you have people such as Naomi Wolf and Cokie Roberts being called out for basic errors. They shouldn’t be claiming they can do history to begin with because it’s an actual profession with actual training that develops actual skills.
Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.
But like medicine, law or engineering, history is a profession for which scholars spend years learning crucial skills and absorbing bodies of work that help them to interpret the past. While we can and must encourage more people to dig into our past and work to better understand it, we also must understand how critical the specialized toolbox of historians is to getting the past right.
The Roberts incident highlights the limits of casual inquiries into the past. Last week, when she was asked about the history of abortion in the United States during an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” she claimed that, in a search of 19th-century newspapers, she never found an incidence of abortion advertised. That led her to conclude that historians who had written about the frequency of abortions during this period were distorting history, driven by their own political views.
Yet the ability of just about anyone to produce a historical podcast or to jump into a historical project can make it seem that anyone with enough enthusiasm can do historical scholarship — leaving us unclear about where expertise comes in. Joanne Freeman, Yale historian and premiere expert on Alexander Hamilton, recently narrated via Twitter a series of “conversations with historians” that covered a wide variety of misconceptions about the work that historians do.
These misconceptions include the notion that historians are generalists, and therefore know all history. In reality, historical knowledge is highly specialized. Someone who studies post-World War II America may have little grasp of, for example, medieval Europe. It is significant that the podcast that Freeman co-hosts, “Backstory,” always includes specialists for multiple segments of each episode, despite having a regular team of five historians.
Almost immediately scholars began responding on social media, pointing out grave errors of fact and context in Roberts’s interpretation. A tweet thread by historian Lauren MacIvor Thompson, with specific examples from newspapers, was “liked” and shared thousands of times within hours.
In reality, there were plenty of advertisements in those newspapers for abortion services — they just used language that must have been unfamiliar to Roberts. For centuries women had been seeking out methods to “unblock menses” or other such descriptions for abortifacients. The women of the era may not have had the same language or understanding of the physiology of reproduction that we do today, but they did want to control reproduction and sought out the means to do so.
Freeman’s list also included the expectation that historians are detail aggregators who do or should know random details of a specific event from the past. In reality, historians often focus on the big picture, with an eye to the particular details emerging from the record that illuminate what happened, and why. Deep research in the historical record, such as 19th-century newspapers read alongside other materials, crucially shapes how fully we understand the past.
Finally, and most tellingly, Freeman’s conversations tackled the topic of revisionism, or the public perception that any historian who offers new information or a new interpretation is instantly suspect (a common accusation on Twitter).
In reality, historical understanding isn’t static any more than knowledge in any other field. We wouldn’t expect our doctors to convey the same information that our parents received from doctors decades ago. The same holds true for history. New sources — text, objects, images or oral histories — become available all the time, along with new methods and fresh perspectives on the past. Such developments show how powerful forces shape what we know about the past, and why.
The doctor analogy is, perhaps unintentionally telling, as now what has happened to historians is happening to doctors and everyone is now a medical expert, leading to the return of measles and whooping cough. Amateurs with large followings pushing ridiculous ideas of history are the walking embodiment of human measles.