The Importance of Historiography

The Importance of Historiography

According to Bond, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity did not classify people as “white,” and many of the classical marble sculptures, sarcophagi, and steles from the Mediterranean were originally painted—frequently in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown. As the pigments deteriorated over time, art historians, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann—an eighteenth-century scholar considered by many to be the father of the art historical discipline—perpetuated the idea that the white marble statues of ancient peoples represent an ideal beauty, a notion that still fuels white supremacists today.

These thoughts (summarized here from Sarah Bond’s Hyperallergic article here) elicited death threats from members of the alt-right. This is a very troubling result of something very smart: an attempt to show how Classics may be unintentionally complicit in perpetrating racial thinking, how we can alter this complicity, and how this problem developed in the primordial soup of our discipline.

We need to be aware of the history of our field and, depending on the level of our students and courses, present this historiography to our students. It shows us why we approach certain questions and issues in certain ways. Here are some of the things we can do with this knowledge:

  • Show why a certain approach is beneficial. Certain materials are best approached from certain angles, or they can only tell us certain things. Over decades and centuries of research, scholars have determined some of these limitations and best approaches. Students can learn them too.Childe Historiography.png
  • Show why certain approaches, methods of presentation, or interpretations are, perhaps, wrong or troubling. Painted sculpture is a good example here. I presented another good example in my ancient history course: the idea of diffusion. Historically, it developed alongside ideas about Social Darwinism, and the large-scale diffusionist theory of V. Gordon Childe was contradicted by new data from C14 dating. This example allows us to talk about reasons for rejecting theories (i.e. it doesn’t fit the evidence) and for being cautious or worried about theories (i.e. it implies that some humans or cultural phenomena are more valuable or dignified than other humans or cultural traits). This is not to say that diffusion never happened, just that we need to be careful not to assume that “good” traits will spread to other cultures because they are inherently good. We need to explain that diffusion and its mechanism in a more sophisticated way that explains why the receiving culture would want to adopt that trait, practice, or object–in other words, in a way that affirms the dignity of all humans, past and present.
  • Frames these methodological issues in an academic, instead of a political, context. In these times of great political polarization when scholars receive death threats for explaining why we need to say ancient statues were painted, ethically sound statements that affirm the dignity of our students and people in antiquity could be construed as political statements (which could cause our students to shut down). However, if we thoroughly explain the connection between white statues and white supremacy or the connection between diffusion theories and Social Darwinism, the importance of methodological wariness and behavioral change is more apparent than if we make a simple statement to the effect of “But be careful about that interpretation or statement because it has racial undercurrents.”
  • Shows how scholars are a product of their times. For example, diffusion and Social Darwinism developed alongside each other, and research interests in sex, gender, and sexuality developed as feminism and the LGBT rights movement grew. It may help students understand why some scholars seem sexist, and it may encourage them to explore ideas that they care about because of today’s issues.
  • Shows why we, as teacher-scholars, approach questions in a way that may not be as interesting or comprehensible to our students as it is to us. For example, many scholars focus less on wars and the salacious stories in Suetonius’s de vita Caesarum than many of our students might like. However, by recognizing this, we can break out of this habit and explore things in a new way or in a way that engages our students more effectively.
  • Shows students why we know more about Egypt, Greece and Rome than about, say, the Hittite Empire. The dates for excavations and decipherments of languages are a huge factor here. As are the number of scholars working on each culture.
  • Shows students that there is more work to be done. All the answers don’t exist yet, and there are questions that can still be asked, perhaps by them.
  • Shows students how that work can be done. As we talk through different approaches and their benefits, the lesson is also a methodological lesson.
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One thought on “The Importance of Historiography

  1. Historiography is important. It may be that historians cannot be objective, at least not when the events they are chronicling are too recent. Harry Elmer Barnes cautioned about this. After some time has passed and emotions have died down, a more objective approach can be taken to the writing of history of recent, traumatic events (like major wars or revolutions). Too much of history is really propaganda. People should read revisionist history and contrast that to official history.

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