How to Read a History Book: The Hidden History Of History

How to Read a History Book: The Hidden History Of History

by Marshall T. Poe


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How to Read a History Book: The Hidden History Of History by Marshall T. Poe

A deconstruction of the modern history book as artifact, How to Read a History Book explains who writes history books, how the writers are trained, and why they write them. It also discusses genre, bias (political and otherwise) and how to read history books between the lines. Written for undergraduates, intro graduate students and anyone with an informed interest in the subject, How to Read a History Book demonstrates that, rather than being objects that fall from the sky, history books are actually socially-constructed artifacts reflecting all the contradictions of modern meritocratic capitalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780997292
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 01/26/2018
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 606,948
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Marshall T. Poe is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a writer, and is founder and editor of the New Books Network. He lives in Northampton, MA.

Read an Excerpt


The History of History Books

We historians used to make up meaningful stories. Now we just write true ones.

— Reinhardt Friedrich Freiherr von Teufel

Elizabeth Ranke, nearly BA, is 21 years old. She's white, bright and, though awfully ambitious, polite. Her family lives in a smart suburb of a large city on the East Coast of the United States. Her father is a professor in the humanities at a mid-level college and her mother is a lawyer in a small downtown firm. She has one younger brother, Martin, and no further additions to the clan are planned. The family self-identifies as "middle class," but the Rankes rest comfortably in the top 10% of Americans in terms of wealth and the top 2% in terms of educational attainment. They always vote Democratic and know few people who don't. Elizabeth attended a top-ranked public high school, where she was an excellent student. Upon graduation, she matriculated at a "very selective" school, Twiddletwaddle College, in another city on the East Coast. She's a history major and will take her degree — with highest honors — next May. She works hard and has high expectations. Now, in her penultimate semester, she's thinking about graduate school. She wants to write a history book.

As we'll see, she will. But before we follow her from BA to PhD to published historian, we should pause to note that both Elizabeth's aspirations and the artifact she wants to produce are, historically speaking, rather novel. To us, historians and history books are just part of the early twenty-first-century American scenery. Like interstate highways, McDonald's, and MTV, the two have just "always" been there. That's probably what Elizabeth thinks at this stage in her career. Her parents know about historians and history books; her grandparents knew about historians and history books; and her great-grandparents, well, she doesn't really know much about them, but it seems reasonable to suppose they did as well. But the fact of the matter is that hers is not a very reasonable supposition at all. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the time when her great-grandparents would have been coming of age, historians and history books were rather unusual. For it was only then that the institutional machinery that produces historians and history books was being established in the United States. Had Elizabeth been in her great-grandmother's shoes, she almost certainly wouldn't have wanted to become a historian or to write a history book. Almost no one did or could.

This is not to say, of course, that prior to 1900 there were no historians or history books. Though it would be too much to claim that Herodotus is a household name (would that it were so), many college graduates will be able to say that he was a Greek historian who lived a very long time ago, probably in Greece. Some few of them may even be able to propose that he wrote a history book called, appropriately enough, The Histories. Though this dim recollection is only half-right, it's not all wrong. And importantly for our purposes it's right enough for us to be sure that people we would call "historians" were writing true stories about the past we would call "histories" long before we were born.

The act of writing history, and therefore "the historian" and "the history" in their generic senses, are not new. But the profession "historian" and what we're calling a "history book" are new. They were the product of a very specific time, place, and set of circumstances. This is important to bear firmly in mind, because the first step in comprehending the artifact called "history book" is the understanding that history books are not everywhere, always, and of necessity, but rather here, now, and contingent. This is what Elizabeth, still a novice in the trade, doesn't see and neither do most people who read history books. The truth, however, is that historians and history books are not to be found in most of the human past; until very recently, historians and history books were not to be found in most places on the globe, and it is entirely possible to conceive of a here-and-now present in which neither professional historians nor history books find any place. If Elizabeth were reborn at random in time and space, chances are overwhelming that she wouldn't want to be a historian or write history books. She probably wouldn't even know what these things were. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine an alternative — and not entirely impossible — reality located exactly when and where she was born though without historians or history books.

That, fortunately for me and my colleagues, is not what happened. Though it's very difficult to pinpoint the exact historical origins of anything (human events, alas, don't really work like that), it's not too much to say that Germans invented the modern historian and history book in the mid-nineteenth century. More accurately, they invented the modern research university. The word "research" is the important one here. Universities had existed in Europe for about 800 years when the Germans broke ground. But they were first and foremost religious institutions designed to teach novices (and not very many of them) about, well, religion. Naturally they taught other things — mostly, it seems, Aristotle — but Christianity infused them all. Since the truth of Christianity (and, for that matter, of Aristotle) was manifest, there was no real need to go digging around for new knowledge, and in most places such endeavors were actively discouraged. Some brave folks did research, and we know their names well, perhaps too well: Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and so on. They were exceptions. The rule was learning old stuff by rote. What else was required when everything worth learning had already been revealed in the Holy Scripture or received from Aristotle?

By the early nineteenth century, however, a number of important, powerful people in Europe began to believe that finding out new things might just be a good thing. They'd seen some new things in action — calculus, steam engines, morphine — and thought that having more of them around would be (as we would say) "in the national interest." The Germans were the first among them. They took the university "brand" and, under it, built a machine designed to make researchers and research instead of copiers and copies. The cogs and widgets of this machine included several key items, all of which are ubiquitous today where researchers and research are produced. First, money. The Germans realized that scholars have a hard time living on coin collected from callow, broke, and often drunk students. It's hard to write history books when you have to run a collection agency on the side. And, besides, most bookish types lack the muscle to collect anything but term papers. So the Germans, believing that it was important to fund teaching and research (an odd and novel thought in itself), made professors a line item in the government budget. Not a big line item, but a line item nonetheless. Second, freedom. Despite their mania for discipline, the Germans told scholars to do pretty much as they pleased and that they probably wouldn't be fired if they did it. Since most of these scholars were Germans themselves, Ordnung ensued. Finally, facilities. In the natural sciences, this meant laboratories. In the humanities and social sciences, this meant libraries. The Germans built a lot of them.

The entire system functioned as follows and still does (with exceptions noted below). The state hired and paid scholars to conduct research, the aim of which was to find out new things. The scholars, realizing that there is often a lot of grunt work to be done in research, hired and paid students (we would call them "graduate students") to help out and perhaps learn something in the process. The taking of students had the added benefit of ensuring that there would be more scholars in the future, which the state liked, and that the work of particular scholars would continue after they were no more, something the particular scholars liked. The output, so to speak, of the research university was new things and more scholars.

It worked. For in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — that is, before the Nazis messed things up — the German research universities pumped out a lot of top-notch scholarly product. In physics: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger. In math: David Hilbert, Hermann Minkowski, Hermann Weyl. In biology: Rudolph Virchow, Robert Koch, Paul Ehrlich. In chemistry: Adolf von Baeyer, Hermann Emil Fischer, Fritz Haber. In the social sciences: Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tonnies. In philosophy: Gottlob Frege, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl. Between 1901 and 1938, Germany won the Nobel Prize 38 times, more than any other country and over twice as often as the United States.

Naturally government officials, captains of industry, and university presidents in the Americas and elsewhere were watching. They knew just what to do: what the Germans were doing. The founders of a new university — Johns Hopkins, launched in 1876 — were the first to introduce the German model into American higher education. Over the next several decades, many other American universities followed. It should be said that these American educational reformers did not slavishly impose the German model, but rather adapted it to peculiar American educational traditions, notably private funding and a focus on undergraduate education. In any case, the German model and variations thereupon were ubiquitous in the United States by the beginning of World War II. Again, it worked. The list of famous American scientists and scholars is too long to recite. Suffice it to say that beginning around 1950, the United States dominated the Nobel Prizes and continues to do so to this day.

Before the German model, history was not so much an organized discipline as a hobby, primarily for wealthy people who knew a bit of Greek or Latin and enjoyed writing about the Classical World. Occasionally these gentlemen historians would be called "professors" and hold appointments (often unpaid) at universities or academies. Edward Gibbon, of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame, is an excellent example. For the most part, however, these proto-historians were what we would call "amateurs" with no special training, no "research focus," and little interest beyond a fascination with history. Their purpose, insofar as they had one, was to provide "lessons" to their readers, who were overwhelmingly people just like them — wealthy, male, and fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome. They wrote books, and some of them we would call "history books," but they were quite different in content and form from modern history books. By our "professional" lights, these books usually rest on insufficient research, cover too much ground, and lack a well-formed "scholarly apparatus." Were Gibbon alive today, and were he to propose to his dissertation advisor a project on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he'd be thought insane. Were he to proceed with the project and finish it, no dissertation committee would ever accept his offering. And were he to try to get it published at a university press, he'd receive a short though courteous rejection letter. Poor Gibbon!

The man most often credited with introducing the German model into history was of course a German, namely Leopold von Ranke (no relation to Elizabeth). He was a bit like Gibbon and the gentlemen historians in that his passion was Classical Antiquity. He was different from them in that he had solid philological training, a good Lutheran's passion for going back to the original sources, and a half-formed idea that history could be made into a kind of empirical science. Happily for him (and us), his betters in the Prussian government and universities were enthused about making disciplines into empirical sciences, and they were glad to let him try to do so with history. Many of the distinctive characteristics of modern history research and writing can be traced to him, his colleagues, and his students or admirers: the concentration on primary and especially archival sources; the research seminar as a forum for investigation of those sources; the use of extensive footnotes and bibliographies in the writing up of results; the publication of these results in critical history journals and books; and, perhaps most importantly for us, the notion that history is a scientific discipline and, therefore, that historians must proceed through formal training and be certified as professionals.

Ranke's vision of scientific history was brought to the United States by one Herbert Baxter Adams. Adams was a member of the Establishment: he was born of old New England stock, attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and then proceeded to Amherst College. He was not, however, a backward-looking fellow. He knew the future was in Germany (where else?) and, a year after his graduation from Amherst, he went there to find it. In 1874 he took himself to Heidelberg and, together with 41 other American students, matriculated at the university to study nothing in particular. After a time, he travelled to Berlin and enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University. Then, after another time, he went back to Heidelberg where he received his doctorate in 1876.

Before bringing young Adams back to the United States to found the discipline Elizabeth wants to enter, we might well pause to note three items of interest, all of which show the distance between the German model as then practiced and modern history. First, it took Adams less than two years of intermittent study to get a doctorate. Granting that a German doctorate is not quite the same as an American doctorate, that's still remarkably fast. The average "time to degree" for American graduate students in history is currently over eight years (when they finish at all). Second, Adams didn't have to write anything to get that doctorate. He took a two-hour oral exam. That was it. I wouldn't advise you to tell that to an American graduate student struggling to finish a 500-page dissertation. Finally, Adams' doctorate was not in history. His major examination field was political science.

While in Heidelberg, Adams had heard about a new university in Baltimore, the aforementioned Johns Hopkins, that offered fellowships to support research. He wrote the president and trustees asking for a spot in history upon his return. "It is my aim to become a professor of historical and political science," he said. So great was the prestige of his German degree that Adams got the job, despite the fact that he had never written any history or political science at all. He went on to start or help start what was, arguably, the first history seminar (or "seminary," as it was called), the first modern history graduate program, the first history journal, and the first professional organization of historians inspired by the German model in the United States. By the beginning of World War I, Adams and his cohort had convinced pretty much every university president and historian in the United States that history was a science and historians were scientists. History was no longer a rich-man's hobby; it was a profession with its own rules and regulations, institutions and governing bodies, standards and practices.

Not long after the historical profession began to produce professional historians, professional historians began to produce professional history books. Interestingly, the two events were not exactly coterminous. Recall that Adams, certainly a professional historian when he returned from Heidelberg, had neither conceived nor completed any book, historical or otherwise. He was not unusual in this regard. For the first two generations of university-trained, doctorate-holding, professional historians, writing a book was neither a requirement nor expectation. It was assumed that, having conducted a major piece of research in the dissertation (though Adams didn't even do that), one would publish one or more articles in journals. Most historians pursuing academic careers did just that.

Nevertheless, some professional historians recognized that they could write books (the gentlemen historians did), perhaps should write books (the gentlemen historians thought so), and that there should be some mechanism for them to do so (such as the gentlemen historians had). It is in this realization that we discover the headwaters of the institution that is the modern university press. Truth be told, university presses per se are quite old. There was a press at Oxford University in 1478, another at Cambridge University in 1521, and, moving to the other side of the Atlantic, another at Harvard College in 1636. But these were really presses at universities, not university presses as we understand them. And since, as we've noted, universities were essentially religious institutions before the advent of the German model in the nineteenth century, their presses published exactly what you'd expect: the Holy Writ and titles that helped people read and understand the Holy Writ. Not exclusively, of course. The dons also deigned to issue the Greek and Roman classics, which dons everywhere then loved. By the seventeenth century, however, both the presses at Oxford and Cambridge were publishing some other sorts of things (and especially political pamphlets), though titles like The Book of Common Prayer and the works of Livy kept the candles lit.


Excerpted from "How to Read a History Book"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Marshall T. Poe.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The History of History Books,
Chapter 2: Training a History-Book Writer,
Chapter 3: Writing a History Book,
Chapter 4: Making a Living as a History-Book Writer,
Chapter 5: The Parts of a History Book,
Chapter 6: Some Things Hidden in History Books,
Chapter 7: What History Books are Good For,
Chapter 8: Living and Dying with History,

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