Who is History For?

Blog articles such as “A Christmas Abortion” and “She Looks the Abortionist” deal not just in historic subject matter, but in relevant contemporary issues as well. As abortion—its safe, legal access and the rights of women to their own bodies—continues to be a hot topic today among the public, media, and legislators, blogs such as these stand as a reminder of what’s really at stake. In following the narrative of how women were perceived and what perils they faced due to attitudes of the time, we can see our own society and its progress, or lack thereof. Likewise, these authors discuss matters such as historical representations of race, gender, and class in the media, which haven’t changed much over time, placing them squarely within a modern framework.

Gillian Frank asks and then answers how we can best remember Jacqueline Smith’s life and death with, “to dignify her life and her choices, is to highlight the silences surrounding her death and mark the contexts that endangered her as surely as her encounter with an unskilled abortionist.”[1] These silences exist everywhere and who is responding to them? Surely, we are not reading about the horrors of illegal and unsafe abortions in public school textbooks. Outside of the Internet, with its blogs, independent news, and social media, we are not learning about how the biased language of race in America affects our legal system or politics. Bloggers (if not attached to an institution), have more freedom to discuss certain matters that other outlets do not afford.

But are bloggers such as these historical journalists or historians? Is there a difference and does it matter? Blogging can serve a need by giving valid, relevant, and sourced information to the public for discussion. And historian bloggers have the ability to shine a light on society’s shortcomings and show us where we have historically gone wrong or where we have yet to evolve. Our society has lost faith in the media to tell us the truth or even to cover pertinent issues of the day, and so often the scholarly works of free thinkers in academia are inaccessible to the general public because of journal paywalls. Similarly, we are coming to notice silences in our textbooks and to question bias or misrepresentation in books. Are bloggers any more or less trustworthy as sources of information than many of our traditional channels?

And I wonder why we cling so tightly to peer review for everything. Indeed, “Why do academics argue for small panel anonymous peer review?”[2] If “diversity of perspective enriches discourse,”[3] what is accomplished by closing off the interactivity of ideas to the public? It would be inaccurate and unfair to dismiss the critical thinking, knowledge, and familiarity with subject matter that comes from years of dedicated scholarship in an academic setting. These skills are valuable and, while many who don’t hold degrees can certainly educate themselves outside of the Ivory Tower, academia still holds a constructive and theoretically responsible role in training historians and disseminating information responsibly. But who would we consider peers and do we have the right to disqualify the public from the peer review process simply because it lacks degrees and letters?

We are trained to be inclusive and to share authority, and to give voice to silences when we find them. In holding fast to tradition we may be ourselves creating silences. If we can’t offer validity to blogs written by our own scholars, then what respect does that show for the public itself; do we feel that the public is too dumb to engage in conversations about its own history and therefore not “peers”? And if so, is the conclusive message that “history is for scholars, not the people”? We can’t say that we are trying to serve humanity through historical scholarship while locking the public out from discursive interaction with our findings. And if we disregard the abilities of historians to perform their duties outside of the traditional walls of scholarship, we are not showing very much faith in our own training and methodologies. So who is history for?

– Laurel Wilson

[1] Gillian Frank, “A Christmas Abortion,” Notches Blog, December 15, 2015 http://notchesblog.com/2015/12/15/a-christmas-abortion/#more-6679

[2] Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, 2013.

[3] Ibid.


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