What are historians good for?
When a colleague delivers the 30 second 'haiku' version of their current project, there is a question I ask if I feel comfortable pushing them a bit:"Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?"
I constantly struggle with finding my own answers to that, and trying to make them as satisfying as possible. I like history very much and I love the history of science, but without the culture of academia to constrain me, I would never choose to become the type of specialist that graduate school demands we become.
I am not doing my historical work purely to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity; among graduates students, I think few are (though they might say otherwise in professional settings). Much of what I do is shaped by the need to "contribute to the field" and "advance scholarship". So the question becomes: what are the collective goals (if any) of my field, or of history-the-discipline in general? And more importantly, which of these goals (if any) do I want to devote my professional life to furthering?
Sometimes it is hard to tell if history-the-discipline has any goals at all, beyond maintaining and expanding its own place in the academy. Sometimes worthy goals shine through the sea of scholarship, if only briefly. But the gap between what historians could be doing to make the world a better place and what they are doing is too big to ignore. So for now, I suck it up, accede to the demands of the profession, and work to make history-the-discipline just a little more like my vision of what it should be.
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