Saturday, February 14, 2009

You're the Historian: Beginning Thoughts...

It just occurred to me tonight that pretty much no one knows what I do. Not only do they not understand what I--specifically--do, but they also don't really understand the content of my discipline when they happen across it in other contexts.

Tonight, I was sitting around, eating valentine cupcakes with a group of our close friends (three other philosophers and their partners, with whom Justin and I hang out at least once a week) when people got to talking about the Civil War and how much slavery really had to do with it. Justin turned to me and said, "Hey, You're the Historian..." He says this sometimes as a sort of joke since he knows that what I do isn't just an explication of major events in American history. I said, "In my work, the Civil War usually isn't that important as an event in itself, but as a backdrop to how the War changed people's relationship to nature or how the physical environment restricted or affected the way that the Civil War proceeded" (or, for another example, how the War changed American public health...)

One of the group is taking an undergraduate course on environmental conservation, taught by one of my friends who does environmental history and works with Bill Cronon. Because of this class, she realized that what I had said had some connection to the material she was studying in her course--the "Trouble with Wilderness," the difficult legacy of conservationist policies in developing countries, and so on. But as she explained her understanding of this material to the rest of the group, I felt a rising panic as I realized that not only were they hearing these ideas for the first time (which means I had not sufficiently talked about them) but that the nuances and importance of these ideas were not hitting home. I realized just how counter-intuitive some of the core ideas of environmental history are (even--or perhaps especially!--to intelligent, environmentally-minded citizens) and also that, for the first time, I think these questions are really damn important. I want very much to work out what I think that importance is, to clarify it, distill it, break it down, and share it with those around me who I care about--not only so that they can know me better, but so that the relevant and fascinating themes of environmental history can escape the confines of the ivory tower and actually affect the daily conversations intelligent people are having when they discuss environmental ideas. So, here's to that.


Also, on a somewhat related note, since today is Darwin Day, there have been different discussions all over about evolution vs. whatever-people-like-to-think-there's-a-controversy-with. And on both the Rachel Maddow show and on the Daily Show, who should be there to represent evolution, but Ed Larson--a graduate of my very own department. Not an evolutionary scientist, but a historian. What does this suggest about the importance of historians of science in contemporary debates? And is this particularly the case for science/religion (and if so, why?) or are there are other scientific topics today that would seem to benefit from historical input?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, AZ... I'm interested to hear more. Was the philosophers' flaw a matter of unwillingness to seriously engage with the material, or a substantive misunderstanding? Or perhaps a bit of both?

    If it was a substantive misunderstanding, what misconceptions do you think they had about your discipline? What are the most common ones generally?

    Looking forward to reading more from you.

    -Just Understanding Stuff Takes Intense Nous