The Holidays and History

We’re about to embark on six weeks worth of holidays to mark the end of the calendar year.  It’s a time for celebration and reflection, recreation and recommitment.  It’s also a time for gatherings of family and friends.

In short, it’s time for everyone to tell me that they know history, too.

That’s right.  Whenever I arrive at some holiday gathering, a time when I’m not supposed to be at work, I find myself at work again, under fairly trying circumstances that make oral examinations in grad school a piece of cake (well, actually in my case, they were a piece of cake, but I digress).  Someone finds out what I do for a living, and they feel compelled to ask me what I think, followed by telling me why I’m wrong, because there’s (a) an old saying that they’ve taken to heart (“history is written by the winners” is my favorite) (b) they’ve read something someplace (c) they watched a show (d) they want to share an observation that begins “isn’t it true that … ,” which is a sure sign that what follows is not true, and so on.

I’ve had my father-in-law tell me that he knows it to be a fact that after the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant went back to work at his father’s general store, which made him wonder why he became president.  He read it somewhere (I don’t think there’s a copy of anything I’ve ever written in that household).  I never knew white noise could be so intense.

Now, there will be those of you out there who tell me that I should be honored that people are actually interested in what I do and in my field of study.  Spare me.  These people are determined to tell me that they know more about history than anyone else could ever know, and they aren’t interested in what I think … they are interested in telling me what they think, because they know the truth, because they read it or saw it somewhere.  They are rarely sure exactly where, of course.

Note that no one comes up to a chemist and begins to talk about the grand experiments they performed with their chemistry set they received one Christmas.  No one tells a lawyer that they know a lot about the law because they watched Boston Legal or L.A. Law.  No one tells a soldier that they know how challenging combat is because they’ve played Call of Duty.  And a woman would be sorely tempted to slap the man who claimed to understand the pains of giving birth because they were in the delivery room.  But history?  Sure, they know all about it.  They can tell you about how Lincoln won the American Revolution (and, if in trying to be helpful, you suggest that they might mean Benjamin Lincoln, they will look at you in astonishment, and chide you for forgetting the fellow who flew that kite to attract lightning in order to demonstrate the principles of nuclear fission).  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It was with that in mind that I watched the video below, which Kevin Levin kindly brought to my attention before posting it in a somewhat different context on Civil War Memory.

Before you laugh too loud, this curious discourse (which echoes in bizarre ways arguments advanced elsewhere … Morris read Kevin Phillips’s The Cousins’ Wars [1998], which is an odd book) sounds like some people I’ve encountered at holiday gatherings (except you can chose whether or not to hear Morris hold forth on other historical topics, in the spirit of Andrew Napolitano and Chris Matthews [a swing at the right, a swing at the left]).

Here’s Morris on how the Union won the Civil War:


Man, does Dick Morris look like Michael Fellman.  Look here …

That’s right, the historian Michael Fellman.  Is there any other?

Note that as you click on these videos, you lead Morris to believe that his views are in demand, which will encourage him to offer still more discussions on history, which will provide more fodder for blog posts.  Feed the monster.

Enjoy the holidays … and spare the historians.  We’d appreciate it.

About these ads

17 thoughts on “The Holidays and History

  1. I have to disagree with Dick Morriss on one thing, I find it hard to believe that there are any points ever made by James McPherson that haven’t made their way into the consciousness of Civil War buffs.

  2. Every laymen fancies himself a historian, and I applaud your calling them out on it. “Spare the rod, feed the monster.”

  3. It’s been my experience that most people who claim to be interested in history actually have little interest in history at all. What they’re interested in is the past. They find the past compelling, but the discipline of trying to understand and explain the past, not so much.


    • “It’s been my experience that most people who claim to be interested in history actually have little interest in history at all. What they’re interested in is the past.”

      That’s a good point, but I’d carry it a step further:

      “What they’re interested in is a view of the past that affirms their own beliefs and ideologies.”

  4. Just enjoy the turkey (cooked) and ignore the turkeys (uncooked) ;-)

    When I tell people I’m a mathematician, they sometimes respond (almost pridefully), “Math was my worst subject.”

    Have a good holiday, Brooks. Make sure Olivia has an opportunity to “kill some puppies”.

  5. This is similar to the experience I have had as a middle school teacher. People who think they know how to teach twelve-year-olds because they went to school . . .

  6. Don’t be so quick about lawyers. I can vouch personally for the fact that prosecutors are second-guessed by anyone who’s seen an episode of Law & Order. Or been to traffic court . . .

  7. Isn’t this also about the extent to which the citizenry participates in what we do? Or to put it another how much we, historians (with acknowledgement of Brooks’s post about the terminology of professsional v. academic v. amateur), allow the public to take part in what we do? Citizens have an obligation in a democracy to engage with the past (as used in comments above). Are we priests with specialized knowledge or citizen-historians?

    Here is one of Carl Becker’s trenchant thoughts on the matter in his AHA Presidential Address for 1931 “Everyman His Own Historian.” (
    “Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s