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What Historians Do (And Why I Want to Be One)

This fall, I changed my long-term academic goal from an English Literature and Film Studies major with a minor in History to a History major with a minor in Anthropology/Sociology. There were a lot of practical reasons for this, in addition to the fact that I just plain like History more and was getting bored with the repetitive patterns of Literature as an academic discipline. The entire English major seems to be comprised of the following: read a book. Analyze it. Write your analysis. Rinse and repeat.

Well frankly, that’s just boring. I still love writing, and of course I love reading, but the patterns in fiction aren’t remarkably different, or at least not enough for me to feel like I’m accomplishing something if I systematically study thousands of books and find parity in most of them. I don’t want to be dismissive of writing, of its place as an art form, or of its significance in academic study. But I now know that I’ll be bored and unhappy for the rest of my college career, if not the rest of my life, if I get an English degree. Hence, the switch.

Sunday, I had the family over for dinner, and when I disclosed this change to them, I got a wall of sort of bored, blank stares. There wasn’t quite any eye-rolling, but we were a hair’s breadth from it, and I could feel the body language asking me “Why? History is dead. It’s booooorrrrrring.”

I’m sorry, but it really isn’t. Not to me, anyway. If it’s boring to you, you probably had terrible history teachers. But as Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun (ahoy! my three years as an English major weren’t entirely wasteful) “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” So give me a moment to explain what history really is, why it’s still relevant, and why I find it interesting.

At its simplest, history as an academic discipline is the study of the events of human lives. Though that statement may seem fairly self-evident, the practice of studying history draws from and influences many academic focus areas—some obvious, others obscure—and touches many academic disciplines, notably sociology, anthropology, and political science, which often overlap it. History involves not only the recording and study of events, but also their analysis and interpretation: both in how a particular event influenced the other events of its contemporary or subsequent ages, and how events of past ages influence the current age. Besides studying individual events or persons, historians also study broad movements in human history.

So then, what distinguishes history from sociology, anthropology, or political science? These social science disciplines have areas of overlap, but the focus of each is distinct. Though sociology studies the influence of events on human behavior and social constructs, it limits itself to social behavior. Political science does much the same, but limits itself to political behavior. Anthropology examines trends and changes in all aspects of human existence, from biology to culture.

History may encompass aspects of these other disciplines, and in fact, those three can be loosely viewed as specialized historical studies, but history is distinct because of its breadth and its depth. Historians may study anything that can be classified as history—a particular event or a broad movement, a massive shift in cultural thought or a single human life. History isn’t even relegated to studying the past, as historians may be called upon to offer an analysis or critical opinion of the possible impact of contemporary events based on their knowledge of similar events in history. Historians accomplish their studies through diverse methods, mostly centered on research, analysis, and interpretation of historical evidence.

We analyze facts, not suppositions. A historian examines any evidence available, as long as it is credible. There are two broad categories of evidence we use: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are first-degree-of-contact sources that are contemporary to the event, individual, or period being studied. Some common examples are census records, tax rolls, written or recorded transcriptions of eye-witness testimony, and inscriptions on physical objects and structures such as grave markers, standing stones, monuments, and clay or stone tablets. In order to be acceptable as primary sources, these documents and inscriptions must be dated to the period they refer to. The other kind of source, a secondary source, is any second-degree or further removed account of an event, generally written or compiled from primary source documents after that event’s time. Examples of secondary source documents include scholarly reviews of primary documents, analysis and interpretation of a historical event, journal articles, and any other non-first-degree source that uses primary sources as a basis for analysis and interpretation.

Sometimes, the line between primary and secondary documents becomes difficult to distinguish, as in an old document that refers to even older documents, or a contemporary biography. In the first case, take the example of Aristotle and Plato’s writings. Aristotle’s works may refer to certain works of Plato, of which no copies are extant, and may also include Aristotle’s commentary and his own exposition on Plato’s concepts. This is considered a primary source for Aristotelian thought, but only a secondary source for Platonic thought, though both would likely be considered credible, since the relationship between Plato and Aristotle is well-established. In the second case, consider the biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Though contemporary to the life of Jobs himself, Isaacson’s original notes or tapes from interviews with Jobs and others who provided source material would be considered primary sources, but the book itself is a secondary source because it includes the author’s own analysis of Jobs’ life. An autobiography of verifiable provenance, such as Up From Slavery by Frederick Douglass, however, is considered primary because Douglass recorded events of his own life and times.

Further complicating the question of sources are the issues of corroboration and peer review. If a source is stand-alone—that is, there are no other records from the period that corroborate it—it is considered an uncorroborated source. However, merely being uncorroborated does not immediately render a source as suspect. Many early primary source documents are the only records of a particular event, but are accepted as historically valid nonetheless, such as a single church parish birth record, where no other evidence of an individual’s life is extant, but where the parish record itself has been verified as credible and authentic to the period. All sources should be corroborated when possible. For all secondary sources, and for uncorroborated or newly discovered primary sources, peer review is of paramount importance. Any historical writing based on non-peer-reviewed secondary sources will not be considered scholarly. Though new primary sources can be introduced when discovered, they should be submitted to peer-review, both to establish their veracity and to share with other historians.

Beyond traditional sources, historians may occasionally use supposition and other non-evidential leads as clues to look for more evidence, but we will never base conclusions on those kinds of sources. Basing a conclusion or analysis on anything other than established or verifiable evidence does not stand up to the rigor of academic scrutiny. History, when done right, is as complicated and exacting as engineering or any other profession that requires a high level of training.

Now I’ve defined what history is, what historians do, and how they do it. But none of this answers the most important question of all: why study history?

The purpose of history is not, as many schoolchildren probably believe, to memorize a list of names and dates. That’s not history; it’s just a list of historical information. Where history becomes both relevant and interesting is in its analysis and interpretation. Historians are not just trained to dredge up long-forgotten facts. They are trained to look at historical evidence and use it to tell a compelling story of humanity. Historical study lends understanding to the human condition by helping us understand the patterns of events, whether over a single life, or over generations. At its most abstract, then, history is not the study of human life—that’s anthropology. History, instead, is the study of human change. It encompasses how we change ourselves as well as how we change the world around us. History offers us insight into how the world we live in came to be. Just as literature, poetry, and art show us what human beings can dream, history shows us what we have been, what we can be, and sometimes, what we should not be.

Once we have examined all the available, credible, and verifiable evidence, we use it to sew together a narrative. We are a little bit like Sherlock Holmes, except it’s “The Case of the Civil War Battle, and What it Taught Us About Southern Politics,” instead of “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

What about the old adage that history repeats itself, and that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it? Is that accurate, or just a cliché? Here’s an experiment: I’ll tell you a true story, and you can judge that old saw for yourself.

Once upon a time, there was a town at the edge of a massive American river. A dike protected the town from the rising and falling tide, and for a long time, the town was safe. Then one day, the dike broke. The town flooded, killing residents and destroying millions of dollars’ worth of homes, businesses, and infrastructure. The government had been aware there was danger of the dike breaking, but had issued only a mild warning the night before, followed the next morning by another warning to not panic. They sent no edict to evacuate, and sent no pre-flood help to the residents. When the dike did break, the government took its time, considered what to do, and eventually sent aid, but too little, and too late. While the rest of the world looked on in rubbernecking fascination, residents prayed for rescue while sheltering in trees and on rooftops. Analysts who examined the situation after the fact determined that a main factor in the government’s slow reaction may have been racially and socially motivated, because the town was mainly populated with poor and working-class people, nearly half of them African-American.

By now, you probably think I’m talking about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. You think this is a story of that city’s tragic destruction in 2005. You’re wrong.

On the afternoon of May 30, 1948, a 200-foot long section of the dike holding back the rushing waters of the Columbia River—our nation’s fourth largest—collapsed, flooding the boom town of Vanport City, Oregon, despite the government’s warnings that morning that the dike was safe, and that there was no reason to panic. The flood destroyed almost the entire city, killing 15 people and leveling the entire town, once home to 40,000 residents. Vanport, established as transient labor housing for the World War II and post-war manufacturing boom in Portland, Oregon; and Vancouver, Washington; housed mostly working-class residents—many of them workers at Kaiser Shipyards and other riverside manufacturing operations. Around 40% of the population was African-American, the highest concentration of non-whites in Portland at that time.

Though the Vanport Flood is not on the same scale as Hurricane Katrina and the tragic loss of life seen in New Orleans, the basic pattern is the same—and in both cases, racial tensions and class prejudice likely contributed to the nonchalant attitude of government officials who ignored the warning signs of impending doom. In Vanport, the government even issued a warning to not “get excited” over the prospect of flooding, just six hours before the dike broke. They did issue one warning, a very mildly-worded missive, the night before the flood, that the previous winter’s high snowfall—135% above normal—meant a greater water volume in the river and a possibility of some flooding in riverside areas. Because of that warning, many Vanport residents moved belongings to upper floors of residences, but no one thought to evacuate the town, and those who might have were reassured by the assurance message sent out the next morning. Despite enacting what amounts to almost no precautions, only 15 people died in the flooding, several of them swept away and drowned in the initial 10-foot tall crushing wave of water that engulfed the northernmost portion of the city when the S&P railroad dike broke at 4:17 pm.

Several factors contributed to the low loss of life. First, Monday, May 31—the day following the flood—was Memorial Day, and thousands of Vanport residents were out of town for the holiday weekend. Second, the area around Vanport contains numerous sloughs and backwaters which were able to accommodate some of the extra water volume caused by the dike breaking. Third, the population of Vanport at the time of the flood was down to around 18,500, less than half of its wartime population, due both to a fall-off in manufacturing volume after the war’s end, and racial prejudice from Portland residents—mainly led by Ku Klux Klan propaganda—that had turned the minds of many Portlanders against Vanport’s somewhat egalitarian social setting of mixed black and white housing and schools, a concept almost unthinkable in some regions in a pre-Brown v. Board society, and had driven many Vanport residents of color out of the city and into more accommodating areas.

Despite the low death toll, the entire city was wiped away—housing, businesses, personal belongings, infrastructure, automobiles, and even trees. An estimated loss of 5300 houses left almost 20,000 people homeless, and the area once known as Vanport City was left a reeking swamp littered with the broken trappings of its former incarnation as an urban center. Instead of rebuilding immediately, the government allowed the area to sit vacant until 1959, when reconstruction began, eventually forming the area now known as Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and the current neighborhood of Bridgeton.

The pattern of the Vanport flood is similar to the Katrina flood and the destruction of New Orleans in so many ways that it has an undeniable and eerie resonance for historians. Our failure, as a nation, to learn the lesson of the Vanport flood may or may not have impacted the situation in New Orleans in 2005. But the episode certainly could have taught us something about disaster preparation and management, had we only listened.

Knowing where we come from is a major step in discovering where we’re going. History is a time machine that can take us to our past, our present, and our future. And that is why I changed my major.

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