Why Historians Are Like Tax Collectors

tags: historians, academia, records

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of Medieval Studies and Chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. He researches the European Middle Ages, as well as how that period is remembered in the modern world – both in formal history writing and in pop culture - with a focus on the Crusades, kingship, nostalgia, and apocalypse. He earned his PhD from the University of California-Berkeley (2005).

There has been some debate recently about how - or even if - academics should engage with the public, with that conversation focused particularly around the role of the historian (which I define broadly as anyone who seriously studies the past). Indeed, historians seem to be everywhere, celebrated for their viral Twitter threadsprofiled in national publications, etc.

Certainly, not all scholars are happy about this. They sometimes lament the "twitterization" of the mind or say that public engagement is not "real" scholarship.

But in response to that idea, one historian wrote:

Writing and print are not powerful enough to stop the spread of myths... What they can do, however, is to preserve records of the past which are inconsistent with the myths, which undermine them - records of a past which has become awkward and embarrassing, a past which people for one reason or another do not wish to know about, though it might be better for them if they did...

Herodotus thought of historians as the guardians of memory, the memory of glorious deeds. I prefer to see historians as the guardians of the skeletons in the cupboard of the social memory... There used to be an official called the 'Remembrancer'. The title was actually a euphemism for debt collector. The official's job was to remind people of what they would have liked to forget. One of the most important functions of the historian is to be a remembrancer.

Was that a Facebook post? On someone's blog? A screenshot of a note posted to Twitter? Nope.

Read entire article at Forbes

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