Bad History: One Damn Thing

Myth: History is just one damn thing after another.

Fact: Uh…kind of? But also not. It’s complicated. Let us explain.

One of the great things about history is that it’s so popular. Walk into pretty much anywhere and you’ll see books about history, articles someone shared on Facebook, podcasts, movies, TV shows, TV channels, you name it and it’s probably got someone doing some history on there!

Academic historians have a…complicated relationship with popular history. Some are all over TV and the internet. Others rail against how pop history is permanently awful (which is unfair, there’s a lot of bad pop history out there but there’s a lot of good stuff too, and there’s some overlap between academic history and pop history). Still others are what’s called public historians – people who tell the general public about history, like people who put on museum displays and stuff. Technically, we’re public historians too here at We Lack Discipline. One of us even works with a museum. Oops.

If you don’t do academic history, half of the shit academic historians say doesn’t make sense. And to be honest, even if you’re an academic historian half of the shit academic historians say doesn’t make sense either! History is just so broad and there are so many different ways to do it that it’s very difficult to keep on top of what’s going on outside your own little patch. If you know about the history of science, that doesn’t mean you know about the history of fashion or the history of food.

That’s where the problems start! Because history is so broad and nobody can possibly know about all of it, you’ve got to fill people in and explain exactly what bit of the past you’re talking about, and also explain exactly why any of us should care about the South Sea Bubble or whatever (unfortunately not a literal bubble, it’s an economic bubble). This is what pop history is mostly about, and also certain different kinds of history – for example, a lot of different histories written by scientists read like they’re telling you one damn thing after another.

Today, academic historians don’t do this. They make arguments about how and why stuff happened – just listing what stuff happened in order doesn’t cut it, especially as sometimes we pretty much know what happened but not necessarily why! In my research I study space history. We more or less know what got into space, but we don’t know so much about how or why certain missions succeed or fail. So while I do have to write about what happened, it’s more important to explain how and why it happened.

But that doesn’t mean writing about what happened is bad – it means explaining the how and the why, and looking at that from all sides, is important too. History is way more than just one damn thing after another.

Published by Osnat Katz

PhD student with UCL and the Science Museum; space history, public engagement and all kinds of other fun stuff

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