Specialization, Generalization, and Inspiring People with History

I understand very well that it's impossible to have great historical research without people who dig into the details, exploring every source they can concerning particular subjects. The more time they spend with such subjects, specializing, learning source languages and cultures, approaching the material from different perspectives, the further our knowledge can be advanced by their work. For example, I just finished readings from James Lockhart's book The Nahuas After the Conquest, which is based on documents written in Nahuatl, a Native language of central Mexico. Lockhart learned Nahuatl himself to do the work, and it's clear that was a major part of how he was able to understand and interpret the documents.

Still, I am increasingly becoming aware that as a historian I am likely destined to stay a generalist, acquiring and renewing knowledge about many eras and regions of the world and likely never conducting the sort of life-long, in-depth devoted research that so many admirable scholars do. I don't really feel bad about this, especially considering that I think I'd like to teach high school world history more than most anything else. While it could be extremely useful to pick out some place and theme for myself and engage with that in depth for the length of a career - or at for least several years of work - I also think that a generalist can be useful, not only by passing on history to students or the wider public, but also by seeing wider patterns in the course of humanity's past, making comparisons and drawing conclusions.

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Being recklessly general can be very dangerous. One of my favorite examples of this is Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory, which I mentioned a year ago here. Huntington was no historian, but the man divided the world into "civilizations" (see the map), and then proposed that clashes between these civilizational divisions would characterize our post-Cold War history - and unfortunately, a lot of people take this sort of thinking seriously. (For an undoubtedly good analysis and refutation of it all, see this.) Briefly put, the "Clash of Civilizations" is an absolutely ridiculous concept, and it's an example of generalization gone horribly wrong.

I think being a generalist first and foremost means knowing the limits of one's knowledge - trying not to make assumptions, speak in absolutes, or use ridiculously large units of analysis, such as "Americans did this," or "China is like that" (or, "civilizations" are like that). After you know how to qualify your language, to speak in likelihoods and uncertainties, possibilities and doubts, then you become ready to see potential patterns across history, to consider different times and peoples around the world, and to inspire people to think about these commonalities that tie humanity together - the things we share with our forebears as well as with people on the other side of the globe.

Unfortunately, a lot of students and a lot of people in general don't see the relevance of history in their lives. They don't think that learning about the past has any practicality, and that taking history in school was largely a waste of time. To some extent, they may be right. I think that teaching history that isn't made relevant to students basically is a waste. From the very first day of class, students should know that their lives have been entirely shaped by all that has gone before them, and that their thoughts about the world, and most of all about themselves, need to be informed by a knowledge of the past.

As I talked about in this post, I think many students in the United States today are being failed by the status quo of history textbooks and instruction, in middle school, high school and elsewhere. Instead of being inspired by the uncertainties and conflicts of the past and being taught to think about them critically and apply their lessons to the present, they're just being force-fed flat, meaningless narratives that can easily fit onto worksheets. I'd like to be a historical generalist so that I can learn a lot about different parts of the world and different times in the past. Then, using that knowledge and awareness of history's detailed complexity, I'd like to specialize in inspiring people to explore the past themselves.


  1. How many times can I emphatically agree with you? I came to much the same conclusion myself as I finished my history degree, although I found out later that I wanted to be an even greater generalist as a librarian instead of an inspiring high school teacher. I have met a few individuals who are fighting the good fight in high schools, so keep exploring new teaching methods and ways to connect with students. But as long as history is important to you, you will find ways to share it with others no matter which occupation you choose. And now for a biography recommendation you might enjoy: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement and the recommendation! I'll remember it for this summer, since I know until May I'll still be constantly reading about Korea, Natives, development and Francophone literature. I hope everything's going great for you!

  2. The challenge is to make the material relevant and connected to the brains of the students. Thematic instruction and cross-connected units with other subjects helps. Unfortunately many schools have moved away from this type of instruction as yearly state exams and standard based tests have become legislative priorities. Maybe the pendulum will swing before your retirement.

    1. It's depressing and probably pretty accurate that you say "before your retirement." It does seem like policy is characterized by long-lasting swings in attitude.


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