Historians, Historical Thinking, and Story-Telling

I am singing the praises this morning of Allen Mikaelian’s post at AHA Today, “Historians vs. Evolution: New Book Explains Why Historians Might Have a Hard Time Reaching Wide Audiences, Getting a Date.”

The focus of the post is Jonathan Gottshchall’s book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. (We did a previous post on Gottschall’s work here). Gottschall argues that human beings are “addicted to the story.”  Stories are good for us.  They are part of our evolutionary makeup.

Gottschall’s book does not deal with the writing of history, but Mikaelian has brought his argument into the realm of our profession and the way we communicate the past to others.  What I appreciate about the piece is that it does not simply exhort historians to go out and write books for the general public that tell stories instead of engaging in things like complexity and contingency.  While I am very supportive of the idea that historians need to write better and write for larger audiences, Mikaelian’s piece has made me rethink the complexity (OK, there, I said it!) of this increasingly popular argument/exhortation about historians engaging the public.  If the historian’s task is to challenge popular myths, make historiographical flourishes or even, at the most basic level, engage in interpretation, then, as Mikaelian argues after reading Gottschall’s book, she is working against the way that people are naturally inclined to approach the past.

As Mikaelian puts it,

Gottschall barely mentions history in his short, cogently argued volume. But, if he is right about the reasons for the centrality of story in human life, and the type of stories preferred, he has added another pillar to Sam Wineburg’s argument that historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”

So how do we do it?  How do we incorporate story into our written work–the kind of stories that might draw human beings into our accounts of the past– and yet still engage in the kind of historical thinking I wrote about in the first chapter of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, or the kind of historical thinking that Wineburg challenges us to do in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, or the kind of thinking I have been writing about, in the context of Christian faith, in my current manuscript “The Power to Transform: A Reflection on the Study of the Past.”

I don’t know yet.  But Mikaelian has got me thinking.  I am about to order Gottschall’s book.

Here is another taste of Mikaelian’s post:

Gottschall, while admitting that science isn’t 100 percent certain on the point, clearly believes that we became a storytelling species because of its evolutionary advantage. Stories can help the storyteller find a mate through “gaudy, peacock like displays.” Stories are social simulators, he writes, “honing the neural pathways that regulate our responses to real-life experiences.” He cites studies that suggest “heavy fiction readers [have] better social skills and empathic ability—than those who mainly read non-fiction.” Even after taking into account potentially damaging and pernicious fictions, stories are, he argues, “on the whole, good for us.” And even if they are not, it makes little difference: “We are, as a species, addicted to story.”

Historians can write stories. Sometimes they choose not to, because they’re writing for a particular audience. (Gottschall understands this, having made an effort to ‘unlearn’ his own academic writing habits.) But most historians also believe, to quote William Cronon’s recent article, that “Getting facts right generally trumps good storytelling.” For those historians, The Storytelling Animal could be a depressing book.

2 thoughts on “Historians, Historical Thinking, and Story-Telling

  1. Interesting post, John. It's something I've thought a lot about. To try to reach both specialists and general readers, I mix narrative and analysis in my books. “Jacob Green's Revolution” is an attempt to tell a (biographical) story through a broader interpretative, analytical framework-how religion influenced reform in the revolutionary era. It further plays with the biographical form by telling a backstory that is straight narrative. Does it work??? I'll be curious to see what you think, but do keep all this in mind as you read it …


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