I’m not wearing hockey pads

The people who leave the most hostile comments on this blog are folks who are upset when I question outlandish claims.  I find this same pattern at work on other history blogs.  The more improbable the claim, the angrier its proponents get when you challenge it.  The readers who want to tear me a new one are generally the ones responding to posts in which I’ve discussed subjects that lie outside the bounds of conventional history, like extensive pre-Columbian contact, black Confederates, and so on.  They want to know why history bloggers dismiss these ideas with such contempt.

What I hope to do here is explain why I and other history bloggers sometimes come across as dismissive.  I submit to you that there are some occasions when failing to take an idea seriously is not only excusable, but unavoidable.

Here’s what a reader said some time ago in response to a post dealing with dubious Native American history:

Once again the so-called experts and historians have slammed the door shut on a new thought.…When anyone says he is a ‘classically trained’ anything, I shudder because they are usually so locked into what is ‘accepted’ that they would choke on a new idea. My respect for what our colleges and universities are turning out as scholars continues its free fall. When will the minds of intelligent people be freed from this stranglehold of ‘experts’ who are much more interested in their own opinions than they are in what might actually be the truth?

The “new idea” in question was an artifact from an excavation here in East Tennessee, now discounted by most researchers working in relevant fields of study as a hoax.  Ironically, some of its detractors published their findings in a professional journal, which isn’t exactly what I’d call “slamming the door shut on a new thought.”  Professional journals are where new thoughts go to either flourish or die.  This one hasn’t exactly flourished.  It happens.

So whenever historians encounter a challenge to the status quo, so this notion goes, they instinctively close ranks and charge bayonets, too closed-minded to accept anything that doesn’t fit through the narrow doors of their ivory towers. (I guess I should be flattered that they’d consider an adjunct with a mere master’s degree to be an elitist expert, but that’s another post altogether.)  Historians, teachers, curators, and some of us bloggers supposedly dismiss arguments out of hand, simply because we don’t like to share our sandbox.

It reminds me of an early scene in The Dark Knight where a gang of young, would-be Batmen, decked out in hockey gear in place of armored Batsuits, show up at a parking garage where crooks are arguing over a drug deal.  The Batmen try to bust the bad guys and end up making a royal mess of things.  When the real Batman arrives, he tells them to butt out.

“Don’t let me find you out here again,” he says.

“What gives you the right?” one of them asks.  “What’s the difference between you and me?”

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot." This is two consecutive posts containing a DC Comics reference, by the way. That's got to be a first for the historical blogosphere. Image from buysuperherocostumes.com

Now, Batman could reply that he’s spent years studying martial arts, or that he’s developed an arsenal of cutting-edge weaponry, or that he’s mastered all the techniques of criminal investigation.

He doesn’t say any of those things.  What he says is simply, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  He has a point.

Similarly, there are a great many statements and beliefs inhabiting the seedy underside of our collective historical consciousness which are so incongruous with generally accepted facts that they undermine the credibility of the persons promoting them. In other words, the very act of making some statements indicates that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because if you knew what you were talking about you wouldn’t have said something so asinine in the first place.

Are some historians closed-minded snobs? Absolutely; there are some in every profession.  Contrary to what some critics claim, however, academic history actually puts a premium on originality.  The “original contribution” is the holy grail of scholarship.  Every grad student, every author, and every university press is looking for the new interpretation that’s going to push the field in another direction.  Historians who present fresh arguments of tremendous explanatory power and who set the agenda for other scholars working in the same field are the ones who advance to the pinnacle of the profession.  Those are the folks that other historians carry on their shoulders in triumph, like the kid in the Old El Paso commercials.

But history is still a discipline, and all disciplines have parameters and standards. An “original contribution” needs to be original, but it also needs to be a contribution.  It needs to make sense within the context of all the other evidence accumulated over the years.  Adding something new to the conversation is great, but disregarding the entire conversation isn’t.  You can always disagree with the literature, but you’ve still got to make sense of the information at hand.  That’s where we draw the line between “original” and “crackpot.”

Historians saturate themselves in the work of other historians because they recognize that other intelligent people have invested a great deal of time and effort in the subject, and they’re hesitant to disregard all that accumulated knowledge without good cause.  If you’re setting out into the wilderness, the sensible thing to do is take a few maps, even if those maps are sketchy or incomplete.  That’s why the prefaces and introductions of so many historical books summarize the earlier work on a subject and then outline where the author intends to go.  It’s a way of saying, “I’ve done my homework here.  I’ve looked into what’s been done, and this is what I think I can bring to the table.”  It’s not snobbery that prompts this concern for the lay of the landscape.  It’s conscientiousness.  It’s a kind of humility in the face of those researchers who have charted out the ground before them.

The fact that you’re going against the grain of consensus doesn’t mean you’re wrong—every revisionist has to do so to one degree or another—but it should at least inspire some healthy caution.  The folks who have established a paradigm have already made their case; now the burden of proof is entirely on your shoulders.

If you think the historical consensus is wrong, fine.  Show us why you think it’s wrong, and give us a framework for making sense of the past that’s more helpful than the one we have and accounts for the primary sources at our disposal.  This is how knowledge advances, with new evidence and better interpretations replacing outmoded ideas.

I started blogging because I wanted to join this growing online conversation about the past, not because I wanted to have the last word.  So if I argue that some claim or another is pseudohistorical nonsense and you’ve got information that indicates I’m wrong, or if you can demonstrate that my logic is faulty, then feel free to chime in and set me straight.  Do the same in any exchange about history.  What I want is to make sense of the past, and I don’t care who helps me along the way.

But don’t try to substitute conviction when information is lacking.  That’s a recipe for making a complete fool of yourself. That’s why I wish some folks would at least entertain the possibility that they have no one but themselves to blame when they can’t get a hearing.  Maybe the problem isn’t that historians are closed-minded ideologues.  Maybe you just look like a doofus, standing there in a cape and hockey pads.

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7 Comments

Filed under History and Memory, History on the Web

7 responses to “I’m not wearing hockey pads

  1. graham

    Nice. This is one of the better descriptions of what academic historians do that I have seen, anywhere.

  2. Michael Lynch

    Thanks, Graham. I appreciate the compliment.

    –ML

  3. ” The “original contribution” is the holy grail of scholarship…But history is still a discipline, and all disciplines have parameters and standards. ”

    A perfect summary of what it’s all about. Nicely done.

  4. Michael Lynch

    Thank you very much.

    –ML

  5. Well said and I wholeheartedly agree.

  6. Michael Lynch

    Thanks, Adam.

    –ML

  7. Pingback: Give the makers of that Mary Surratt movie a break | Past in the Present

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