The Importance of Other Fields of History

“Across the Continent, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” art by F. F. Palmer, published by Currier and Ives, New York, NY, 1868. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Over the past fifty-year historians have become more specialized, focusing on the stories of minorities and their place in our history. By telling these stories historians are able to add more dimension to the study of history. Some of the fields that add more to the analysis include the history of culture, religion, race, ethnicity, and gender. A developing field of history that draws “our attention to obscured or buried” perspective is environmental history. 

Today people have the “flush-it-and-and-forget-it mentality” which results in them not having a clear understanding of our past and the effects they have on the future. By historians telling environmental histories, it forces people to look at events through a different lens. In academic history today we are constantly seeing historians engaging older fields of history with newer fields of history. An example is looking at how environmental history plays into the history of colonialism. By looking at these fields of history it allows people to understand the impact of “the encounter” which leads to the Columbian Exchange. Ultimately leading to the introduction of new plants, animals, and diseases and the deaths of thousands of natives. Another example is looking at how westward expansion affected the environment. Especially looking at how when people expanded west they pushed Native Americans off of their land forcing them into reservations. This lead to changes in hunting patterns and the decrease of animals that Native Americans depended on.

The strengths of specialized fields of history, such as environmental, include attracting people who would not have been interested in the topic prior to. By having a range of topics, it gives people a larger chance of developing a personal attachment or connection to an event in history. An example would be a scientist who does not like history reading about the environmental effects of industrialization. The limits to these specialized fields are the amount of information available on the topic or the accuracy of the information collected. Also if you do not have the data backup a claim then that is a limitation on discussing a specialized field of history. An example could include not being able to talk about the effects of the Atomic Bomb if there was no statistical data.

By not discussing recent fields of history such as environmental, race, religion, culture, ethnicity, and gender we “risk letting people off the hook” for their actions and possibly their mistakes. So be sure to not shy away from the history that is meant to draw your attention to bad and ugly events that occur.

Historical Fiction: Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints via Flickr

As human beings, we are naturally drawn to stories because they are how we communicate and connect to others emotionally and to the world around us. Historians in this sense are storytellers because they help us to better understand the past by studying and writing about it. While not everyone can identify with academic historical narratives, most people can relate to and connect with historical fiction.

Historical fiction should be utilized as an aid to the confusing and complex stories that historians tell. To be considered “good” historical fiction, an author should present the information in a way that does not conflict with the historical facts. Instead, historical fiction should be used to help the reader picture an actual person experiencing the event that is thoroughly explored in the academic history book. 

When people read works of historical fiction, they should use some caution because these books are not necessarily written by academics, and they may not be using the proper sources. In order to properly utilize these sources, a person should check the background of the author to see if they are a specialist in that specific field. If the author is, that would make the book an excellent source, but if they are not, there should be a bibliography or a page that lists additional sources to prove that they did the proper research.

Over the past decade, graphic novels have become a popular form of historical fiction that help students of all levels to better understand the events and the people they are studying in their history classes. From the United States’ Constitution, to the Civil War, to genocide, to the World Wars and to 9/11, historical graphic novels are being written across periods of history. An example of a useful graphic novel is Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints. These books are particularly helpful in understanding the Boxer uprising of 1899-1900 in northern China because it simplifies an event that is told in many different ways. While Yang is not an expert in the Boxer uprising, he has clearly researched this topic thoroughly. This is evident through his list of “Additional Reading” at the end of each graphic novel. After completing Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys, Yang does a fantastic job of incorporating the elements and beliefs that surrounded the beginning, middle, and end of the Boxer uprising. In fact, Yang includes both perspectives of the Chinese involved in this event: the Boxer and the Saint. These books would be best used as a supplemental reading tool to textbooks or books similar to Cohen’s because it adds the personal connection that people look for in their stories.

“Military History Old and New”

John Brown Mural from Kansas State Capital via Flickr

In the journal article “ Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” the author, Robert Citino, a Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University, analyzed the reasons why military history is struggling in academic circles. Citino stated that as military history has increased in popularity in television and movies; its “academic footprint” has become smaller and will continue to shrink (Citino 2007, 1070). Even though military history’s popularity has decreased among professionals, military historians have continued their research, and over the past decade, military history has split into three categories. As a result, Citino needed to conduct a literature review on all three categories in order to establish a complete historical analysis of military history. 

The first of the three subcategories that Citino discussed was “new military history.” This category of military history is not just interested in warfighting but is interested in the effects of military conflict on society. For example, Citino mentioned a book called The Crucible of War, which is about the Seven Years War. In this book, the author did not just tell the story of the three continents involved in this conflict, instead they provided insight into the French and Indain War and the origins of the American Revolution. In addition, Citino mentioned that “new military history” has allowed military historians to discuss different angles of World War II central to the different conflicts. This is especially true for historians that have worked to move the Holocaust out of the margins and place it centrally wiithin World War II. By acknowledging books on these topics, Citino allowed for the conclusion that “new military history” leaves space for discussion and discovery of diverse topics and being inclusive of events that happened before or as a result of a specific military conflict. 

The second category discussed was operational military history, which focuses on the battlefields rather than the hows and whys of warfare. In the article, Citino referred to these historians as the ones who enjoy “…blaming General X for zigging when they should have zagged” and the ones who like to include statistical data (1079). In this section, Citino discussed many operational military historians, two of the prominent ones were Dennis E. Showalter and Reed Browning. By explaining operational military history and including various history books, Citino encouraged readers to conclude that without operational military history the diverse stories of “new military history” would not be able to exist. 

The final category was the application of historical inquiry on military affairs. This means that those who write for this subcategory rely on memory and culture. To historians of this category, words are more important because in the end, they matter “… a great deal more than the brief war that generated them”(1082).An interesting point that Citino made when discussing this was that historical inquiry breaks new and old military history. The reasoning that could be concluded was that this final category is the complete opposite of the aforementioned categories. 

The literature that Citino used as examples included Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. When he discussed the book on Gettysburg, Citino mentioned that the author felt that a nation’s constructed memory changes over time and that it was important to get feelings and opinions of those who had a different perspective. For the Battle of Gettysburg, it was important to identify the memories and accounts of a historian, a wife, a soldier, and an African American from that time period. Similar to writing about the Battle of Gettysburg, authors that write about the historical inquiry around Pearl Harbor are writing on the perspectives of diverse individuals, too. In the opinion of Emily Roseburg, the author of A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory, she sees that getting diverse participants’ stories generate memory rather than “producing history”(1083).

Citino’s article on military history provided an interesting perspective on this field. I especially liked how he ended the article by stating that he does not believe that the “estrangement” of military historians is not just their fault, but that it the fault of the entire historical community. So, in order for military history to gain popularity among the entire historical community, all historians need to work together to form a complete picture because without one field, the other field is not strong enough. 

Citino, Robert M. “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction.” The American Historical Review 112, no. 4 (2007): 1070-090.

Academic History vs. Popular History

A historian’s duty is to ‘breathe’ life into the past. To do this, historians expose individuals to a unique perspective of historical events. When looking at history, people need to be aware of and able to differentiate between academic history and popular history.

Academic histories are tailored to professors of history and to their university students at an undergraduate and graduate level. Therefore, an academic history should be written by a specialist in that field of study. For example, a professor with a PhD in history, that specialized in the Women’s Suffrage, would be considered a quality source on this topic. To be seen as a quality academic source, the work should be reviewed or edited by peers in that field. In contrast, popular history does not necessarily have to be reviewed or edited by peers.

Consequently, popular history is considered to be different from academic history because popular history is trying to reach a ‘non-academic’ audience; popular history is written to be clear and conscious without the typical jargon found in academic history. Those who read and write popular history have different goals compared to those associated with academic history. Their main goal includes reading and writing for amusement.

In order to differentiate the two, there are steps that an individual can take that involves doing a ‘background check’ on the author. By looking into the author’s credentials, one may determine if it is a professor with a PhD writing to educate, or a teen-fiction author writing to tell a story. The second step includes looking at a bibliography. If there is no bibliography, chances are it is popular history. If there is a bibliography with numerous sources,  it is most likely considered academic history. 

In reading and writing history, these standards matter; history is not a black and white image, it is quite the opposite. History is made up of millions of abstract images. By having standards, historians ensure that groups of people are not lost in the chaos, and that their complete stories are told without added interpretations or opinions.