“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner
Historiography, what is it? What is the first thing in your mind when you hear the word “history buff”? Is it a cousin that has a bit too much interest in the Civil War? An uncle that only listens to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and albums by Yes? Your nerdiest friend from high school? How would you answer the question, “how do you study history?”
History is one of those subjects that, when you first start learning, seems incredibly simple. It’s just the “who, what, when, where, how” of stuff that already happened. Rinse and repeat for each year, decade, century, era, etc. But anyone who has taken any interest, whether in college or beyond, has quickly discovered the inner complexities that form our history. The reality is we are constantly re-litigating it and oftentimes the people who are most vocal about it have a vested interest in its telling.
Please take my opinions on the matter with a hefty pinch of salt, as I only have a history undergrad degree and no intention as of yet (don’t hold me to that) to pursue a graduate degree because I hesitate to throw away that much money.
This will be the first part of an ongoing series on how to study history that some of my colleagues want to help break down for us all in a way that is easy to digest. That is part of the mission of The Colloquial; to bring the high-brow out of academia and into conversation. Hopefully, we’ll have some fun as well!
So, let’s address the basic building blocks of history, or, if you will, what is historiography? Historiography is a big fancy word that just means the study of how history is told and analyzed. This might seem a little esoteric, but you interact with historiography any time you try to have a conversation about the past. In this series, we will try to explain historical revisionism, objectivity, the influence of Karl Marx and the early-mid 20th Century French experts on historiography, “The Lost Cause”, the 1619 Project, the Texas Board of Education, and a whole helluva lot more.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, well I believe that my side is correct about this, and I don’t need to know the schools of thought where these ideas originated. Maybe you’re right, but I do think it’s valuable to have a general understanding of where these terms and ideas stem from to avoid making mistakes in your thinking. After all, history is an art, not a science, even if it heavily relies on sourcing and evidence. To quote a musical theater version of Aaron Burr, “No one else was in the room where it happened,” or to translate that for all the normies, don’t know, wasn’t there.
What we want you to walk away with after reading this series is; history is most useful and most easily digested when you realize it’s the story of people. People like you and me, just maybe with different blind spots. Hopefully over the coming weeks, this column can help introduce you to some of the more popular arguments amongst historians. We hope to show how trends in the practice of history have affected trends in society. Learning how to study history is a worthwhile endeavor, and we hope you come along with us.