Over the years numerous friends and family, knowing that I studied history in college and now work as a public historian for a living, have come to me with a range of questions about people and events from the past. I think more often than not I have failed to give them a satisfactory answer to their questions. That’s because in most cases they’ve asked questions about time periods in which I have only a basic and limited understanding. As fascinating as I find the Roman Empire, the Medieval Era, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and other periods in history, I just don’t have the specialized knowledge to give an accurate, informative answer in most cases. And yet oftentimes these questions are prefaced with a comment like, “you’re a historian, so you should be able to help me…”
The reality is that most professional historians specialize in a particular time period, and that time period can be quite small in scope depending on the individual historian’s interests. I think non-historians sometimes assume that the primary goal of studying history is the accumulation of facts. As historian David McKenzie pointed out on Twitter, historical knowledge for many is “simply cramming facts into one’s head to be spit out at a moment’s notice.” While learning facts and establishing historical accuracy are certainly important facets of any history degree program, there are many other elements of good historical practice. This includes (but is not limited to) the ability to search for and interpret the larger context surrounding a particular event, the need to understand change over time, the importance of crafting solid research questions, the talent to be a good reader, writer, and speaker, and the training needed to become well-versed in both primary and secondary source material of a particular, specialized historical era.
When I struggle to answer my friends’ and family’s questions, I point out that historians are in some ways similar to musicians. My area of expertise is nineteenth century U.S. history–particularly the Civil War Era–and that is my “musical instrument,” so to speak. You wouldn’t say “oh, you’re a musician! Go over and play that guitar” without first asking that musician what instrument they play and if they could play guitar. And just because a musician can play guitar doesn’t mean they can play tuba or do a freestyle rap on the spot. The situation is similar with historians. I can talk about the Battle of Shiloh or the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but I’d have a more difficult time giving a detailed answer about, say, the Battle of D-Day or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As much as I’d love to give detailed answers and remarkable facts about every event in human history, the limits of human intelligence require a more specific and concentrated focus.
Music education students in college are required to learn how to play a string instrument, a brass/woodwind instrument, and sing in a choir regardless of their prior expertise. They also learn music theory and develop an ability to read sheet music whether it’s in treble clef or bass clef (or alto clef!). As future teachers of band, orchestra, and choir in a k-12 setting, this training prepares them to help students learn how to play an instrument, read sheet music, and perform together in an organized creation of musical sound. History students at the undergrad level receive a similar curriculum in that they take courses in U.S., European, and World history during their training. They receive a broad instruction that enables them to educate younger students about a wide swath of human history. But like the musician with a specific instrument that they specialize in and perform with in concerts, the historian finds a time period to specialize in and contribute to through public talks, the creation of scholarship, and, in my case as a public historian, by interpreting history to a wide range of publics.