Why history is all about trends and vectors

The other month I had an interesting discussion about historians and history. The issue came up of enthusiasts who style themselves ‘historians’ – but whose qualifications are in a totally unrelated area.

See that print copy? That's the only edition of 'Guns and Utu'. The end.
Some of my books…

What was the difference between their stuff and what I’m doing?

There is a huge difference, I explained. Anybody with an enthusiasm for the past can proclaim themselves ‘an historian’ and be taken seriously as such by public and media, even if unqualified in the field. There was an instance of that the other week here in New Zealand, involving an idiot theory about pre-Maori Europeans. The problem is that being ‘an historian’ involves a lot more than collecting data and transcribing it – which is what enthusiast history usually boils down to. In fact, history is a field of intellectual endeavour that has to be learned – and the skill-set is just as hard to acquire as any other. However, those without training in the techniques don’t know this. It’s the Dunning-Kruger problem.

I explained that my work focuses on social trends and vectors: it’s a way of understanding how the societies and thinking of the past changed through time – shaping the present we know today. It’s about the human condition, a way of understanding our own present, and of what that says about our potential future.

The analytical techniques required for the purpose are shared to a large extent with other social sciences – sociology, particularly; but also anthropology and similar fields. But in contrast to other ‘social sciences’, history-as-discipline has a self-critical side and, indeed, is one of the few endeavours in the humanities that analyses its own approach. Needless to say, this ‘philosophy of history’ itself provokes academic arguments.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!
My historical field of interest has been invaded! The intruder must be destroyed! Kill! Kill!

There is, in short, a world of difference between what a historian like me is doing, and what enthusiasts do. Alas, I explained, the problem comes when enthusiasts don’t understand the issue and instead regard me as an intruder into a territory that they feel they own exclusively, and which they must defend at all cost.

I still remember the way I was relentlessly abused in the media, way back when, by a cabal of enthusiasts in Hawke’s Bay. Their crusade began after I wrote several interpretative books on my home district and began writing regular history columns for the local newspapers. This triggered a systematic effort to damage my good name with a succession of increasingly derogatory fantasies about what they imagined my character and professional integrity to be, which they managed to publish in those papers.

None of them had met me, nor did they make any effort to do so, and their allegations made it obvious they knew nothing about either historical technique, my work, or my character. Then I discovered one of them had approached my employers of the day and repeated his fantasy rubbish directly to them. His allegations were so obviously ignorant  and so obviously intended to do damage that he was laughed at. A little later my publishers got hold of me – he’d done the same thing with them.

It looked like this history enthusiast was actively and systematically trying to damage my ability to earn an income on the basis of an ignorant fabrication about my character that was trivial to dismiss. But that didn’t reduce the obvious intent. The guy either had balls of steel or was an idiot. I suspect the latter; he’d handed me an easy-win defamation case – he was so ignorant of me, yet so blatant in his anger and malice, it wouldn’t even have got to court. But what was the point in dignifying his brand of gutlessness by engaging it that way? All I could have done was bankrupt him and made this total stranger hate me even more.

Still, it wasn’t a great experience, and it left me wondering about how far people can be led away from moral compass by their own insecurities.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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7 thoughts on “Why history is all about trends and vectors

  1. I have known a couple of historians, one who obtained his PhD to be an Army historian – believe me, I do not even come close to his or any other historian’s level!! That’s why I read so much, including your books!!

    1. The technicalities of it can get quite arcane – and it’s also possible for academic historians to disappear up the backside of the theory. There was an instance of that here in the early 1980s when an academic came up with the notion that, if you ignored everything except numeric data associated with assault, drinking and court statistics, then New Zealand settler society consisted of drunken men who went around hitting and suing each other. It was a pure artefact of intellectual technique that provoked a serious historiographical argument in the academy – but to my mind it shouldn’t have, because it was so absurdly disconnected from any sense of practical reality.

  2. “History is a field of intellectual endeavour that has to be learned – and the skill-set is just as hard to acquire as any other” – I think there are a lot of armchair history fans, such as myself, who can get carried away with it all (hopefully not myself). I could read a book on, say, Magellan and then presume I’m a Magellan expert all of sudden. And, by Jove, I’m going to go out there and have an argument with someone who read a different Magellan book, so, therefore, can’t be an expert as I already know best.

    This happens quite a lot on the internet. I often like to read the comments left on national newspaper sites and whatnot to see armchair politicians ranting away with all the right answers. It’s that easy, you see. If only we paid attention to these people.

    1. I think the problem with the autodidiact ‘enthusiast experts’ versus somebody with a healthy sense of self-awareness about their own abilities is that the enthusiasts don’t know their limitations… As you say, it’s very obvious in places on the internet, especially in comments columns.

      Apropos Ferdy Magellan the Seafarer, curiously, I still have a demo chapter I wrote about him from a book I was going to write on oceanic exploration. I had a publisher lined up who actively repped it in Europe and the US, and I had visions of royalty cheques with the usual number of zeroes in them, but with other integers ahead of those. Alas, nobody wanted it… Sigh…

  3. History has always been one of my favorite subjects. As a young boy I’ve always wanted to devote my life to researching ancient empires and/or focus on the Ottoman empire and on how it resonates with the Roman one.

    But I took a different path and chose to be with my other love, evolutionary biology. Perhaps it may be a bit of a stretch but I do consider the discipline of evolutionary biology as an exercise in historical study – thus, evolutionary biologists can be considered “historians” as well – though it’s more on the natural history side of things. Inherent in evolutionary biology is piece together various grains of fact then piecing them together through various techniques which I think corresponds with what you say:

    “The analytical techniques required for the purpose are shared to a large extent with other social sciences – sociology, particularly; but also anthropology and similar fields. But in contrast to other ‘social sciences’, history-as-discipline has a self-critical side and, indeed, is one of the few endeavours in the humanities that analyses its own approach.”

    1. Evolution is also a field of mine – I have a mercurial academic career that includes degrees in both that and history (which prevailed later). There is, absolutely, a strong commonality of technique and in particular the necessary critical thinking.

  4. History has always been one of my favorite subjects. As a young boy I’ve always wanted to devote my life to researching ancient empires and/or focus on the Ottoman empire and on how it resonates with the Roman one.

    But I took a different path and chose to be with my other love, evolutionary biology. Perhaps it may be a bit of a stretch but I do consider the discipline of evolutionary biology as an exercise in historical study – thus, evolutionary biologists can be considered “historians” as well – though it’s more on the natural history side of things. In evolutionary biology, one gathers various grains of facts then weaves them together through multiple techniques which I think corresponds with what you say:

    “The analytical techniques required for the purpose are shared to a large extent with other social sciences – sociology, particularly; but also anthropology and similar fields. But in contrast to other ‘social sciences’, history-as-discipline has a self-critical side and, indeed, is one of the few endeavours in the humanities that analyses its own approach.”

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