Common misconceptions about historians

While I’m not a fully fledged historian (I didn’t go for my Master’s), I still get these strange questions from time to time when people hear that I majored in history. I know, there is no such thing as a stupid question … oh, wait, yes there is.

Person: “Oh! That’s great! What are your thoughts on that particular war, revolt, revolution or reform, that I happen to be so incredibly interested in?”

Me: Eh… I don’t know.

Honestly. Just because we studied history, that doesn’t mean that we’re living encyclopedias. Chances are, we have no clue what you’re talking about, best case scenario is that we recognise the event you speak of, but have no idea what to say about it. Most of the time, studying history at university means trying to understand the why, rather than the what. This means that as soon as you leave the first year level, the time for remembering specific events, dates and places is over.

On to the next one.

Person: “Oh! That’s great! What is your favourite time period?”

Me: Eh … I don’t know. *grits teeth silently*

If I had a penny (or öre, as we say here) for everytime I got this question, I would probably be able to buy myself a bath cushion. And that’s saying a lot.

Having a favourite time period as a historian is a bit like being a baker that only makes croissants. Sure, you can choose to specialise, but historians usually love history for a different reason than what one particular time period can give us. We don’t endure years of study simply because something looks good, or sounds nice. We love it because we have a longing for the past – a fascination with everything that involves the people that were here before us, no matter when.

I think it all comes down to a lack of respect for the subject. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s reconised as fully respectable compared to some other subjects (not getting into that today) but it’s still a far cry from that of law, medicine, economics or engineering. People generally think of history as a pseudo-science, and don’t know what you can do with a degree like that when looking to make a career. All of this is partially true.

But history is hugely important. We need to analyze and be aware of our past in order to not repeat the mistakes that have already been made, and to tread carefully regarding necessary changes that haven’t gone so well the past.

If you happen to be a person that have asked one of the above mentioned questions, don’t worry. The next time you meet a history major or historian, why don’t you ask them what they would change throughout history, if they had the chance. I’m sure that would create a much deeper and meaningful discussion.


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