I don’t consider myself to be a historian. It seems really presumptuous. I’ve seen folks on the internet claiming they’re historians. “Yeah, I just wrote a post on an internet group about history, so that makes me a historian.” Maybe in the loosest sense of the word, but I think a historian does something useful with their writing. Historians exist to study history and to share their understanding with the rest of us. It does no one any good if they keep all that knowledge to themselves. They have to share it, and they have to share it in such a way that the past is useful to us here in the present. The internet is a very powerful medium for this purpose. Sure, books are wonderful, but the internet reaches far more people than a single book ever will reach. So it pains me a bit to see historians who are not just luddite but proudly luddite regarding the internet and its wonderful potential. I think they’re missing the point, shortchanging their profession, and shortchanging the rest of us. They could also be shortchanging themselves. I salute historians who have boldly attacked this new frontier with great vigor and have blogs where they can share their work, their methods, and their insights with us. Some have even participated in internet discussion groups. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is for those of us who have not been trained to be historians and have been fumbling in the dark trying to come to grips with what to do with this thing we call history. Historians have work to do. I get that. They have bills to pay and food to put on the table, which the internet doesn’t do for them. I get that, too. But even lawyers do pro bono work, and it seems to me a professional has some dedication to the profession, and along with that comes a responsibility to teach the rest of us a little bit of what it means to actually be a historian and to provide some guideposts for the rest of us in our journey to understanding of our history. I recently heard an eminent historian I very much like and respect make the provocative statement that uninformed people on the internet should not be given a voice by professional historians who blog. I think that’s completely wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if uninformed views are not taken on and if no corrections are made, then the uninformed view by default will become believed by a larger number of people. If history is to be of use to us today, make no mistake there are those out there who will make use of this uninformed viewpoint to gain political advantage, and with political advantage comes power of some sort. We’ve seen some of the damage this can do already. Stuff like this happens because too many historians have abdicated their professional responsibility to confront mythology and uninformed claims. If an academic historian had someone in their class profess the view that 65,000 black confederate soldiers fought in the Civil War, would that historian allow that statement to stand unopposed? Wouldn’t that historian use that claim as a teaching moment to talk about how to evaluate the evidence? There are historians on the internet doing just that, but recently Gary Gallagher, another eminent historian I highly respect and like, wrote a column taking bloggers to task for blogging about black confederates (a little late since they haven’t talked about it this year prior to his column, I should add). In my opinion, Professor Gallagher should be supporting these efforts, not criticizing them. Wouldn’t he contest that in his own classroom? With the internet, the world is your classroom, and we, your students, are waiting for your next online seminar.
Historians and the Internet