What Naomi Wolf and Cokie Roberts teach us about the need for historiansRoundup
tags: historians, academia, public engagement, Naomi Wolf, Cokie Roberts
Karin Wulf is executive director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, and professor of history at William & Mary. She is also a co-founder of Women Also Know History.
It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.
Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.
But like medicine, law or engineering, history is a profession for which scholars spend years learning crucial skills and absorbing bodies of work that help them to interpret the past. While we can and must encourage more people to dig into our past and work to better understand it, we also must understand how critical the specialized toolbox of historians is to getting the past right.
The Roberts incident highlights the limits of casual inquiries into the past. Last week, when she was asked about the history of abortion in the United States during an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” she claimed that, in a search of 19th-century newspapers, she never found an incidence of abortion advertised. That led her to conclude that historians who had written about the frequency of abortions during this period were distorting history, driven by their own political views.
comments powered by Disqus
- Trump administration says joint UNC, Duke Middle East Studies program portrays Islam too positively
- What White Kids Learn About Race in School
- Frederick Douglass photos smashed stereotypes. Could Elizabeth Warren selfies do the same?
- Chronicling New York’s Muslim History
- New Documents Illuminate The University of Texas’s Secret Strategy to Keep Out Black Students
- Women Scientists Were Written Out of History. It’s Margaret Rossiter’s Lifelong Mission to Fix That
- Allen C. Guelzo Reviews Sidney Blumenthal's Latest Installment of His Biography of Lincoln
- What Reconstruction-Era Laws Can Teach Our Democracy: The NY Times Reviews Eric Foner's Latest Book
- Should historians read their own book?
- Cokie Roberts, Pioneering Journalist Who Helped Shape NPR, Dies At 75