There are fundamental terms and concepts popular in the academic study of history that can help people process historical references in American culture. This article will attempt to give a cursory overview of some historical concepts and terms. This overview will provide the foundation for future more in-depth look at historical references in society.
Fundamentals of what historians do
Historians view history as an objective task of asking the right questions about the past and finding primary sources from the time period to determine the answer. Historians also have to situate this work in the historiography of the topic. Historiography is a broader scope of previous research on the subject that either agrees or disagrees with claims and analyzes other historians’ writing. These works are usually published by a University publishing house and peer-reviewed (evaluated by other historians). These research books are called monographs.
Text books are considered works of summation. They create a cohesive narrative out of elements of various historians’ works. There is not a topic in American history that there is not at least some debate about why or how something in history happened, so even book a book of summation is not comprehensive and does not represent the full wealth of research on any given topic.
Popular history is usually intended for the general public and is not bound by the same research criteria as a monograph. There has been much speculation in the field about why most monographs don’t have wide readership in the general public. It is true that many monographs are broken down by point or topic and don’t follow a chronological narrative, but a lot of the problem is that historians don’t take the time to explain the benefit of reading a monograph. Monographs are authentic research and everywhere in American culture people are looking for authenticity.
The difference between history and memory
Another differentiation made in the historical field that is not properly explained to the general public is the difference between history and memory. Memory is the way a historical event is remembered. The autobiography of a Vietnam soldier is a personal memory. Personal memory is based on one’s own experiences and perceptions. Any reference to a historical event in a political stump speech, movie or Broadway musical is a demonstration of memory. Think back to the 60s. What was it like? Your recollection of life in 60s is your memory. Maybe you remember the time period or maybe you do not, but the way you perceive the decade is your memory. Memory in arts, entertainment and politics is often driven by current belief systems and finds evidence in the past to support these belief systems. Historians attempt to contextualize the actions and environment of historical people on their terms. “Contextualize” means to try to understand words phrases and choices not by what they mean now, but what they meant during the time period.
Changing the conversation
There are countless articles, books, stump speeches and movies that craft narratives to tell the general public what happened, but not enough articles geared toward explaining tools and terms for analyzing these references. This can change if people start talking about history, not just in terms of what happened, but creating conversation about how narratives were crafted and how to properly evaluate them.