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An Iron Law of History

May 5, 2019

Maxim/Periodic Professional Reminder: There is not now, nor has there ever been, a safe haven from politics in the study of history. Not in queries of ancient history, the Medieval period, nor historical studies of science, flowers, space, geology, chemistry, love, sex, pictures, Antarctica, nor food. There is no endeavor involving historical matters that is immune from questions of race, gender, class, power, ethnicity, or some combination of each.

Every historical inquiry is shot through with the interests of the researcher and writer. This means that both their weaknesses and strengths are embedded in their work.

Far from being a tragic weakness that sinks every study of history, this is the great strength of the field. We have opportunities to continually renew and make relevant our understanding of human works. The sum total of our always partial but evidence-based inquiries makes the field dynamic and interesting, if a bit tiring to keep up with.

The “tiring” part is why we need a surplus of people working, studying, and teaching in the field. And we need all types—monkish readers, specialists, average writers, great writers, TV personalities, shy types, archivists, nuts and bolts people, fantastic lecturers, boring lecturers, article specialists, newspaper junkies, group work teachers, etc. It must necessarily be a field with a variety of laborers, not just “star” personalities—which the profession has devolved into (e.g. the commodification of tenured professorship).

In sum: It is an iron law of history that questions of power and politics swim in every single historical question, manuscript, archival holding, lecture, book, conference, and period of study. It is a great failure of learning about history, in our education institutions, that more people don’t realize this iron law of evidence-based pluralism in the field.

Note: Reflection instigated by this story.

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