Historians are Storytellers

Cronon

A friend recently sent me this quote from University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon:

One of the things I actually love about the discipline of history is that historians are narrators. I honestly think we are the last explicitly narrative discipline left in the American academy (with the journalists, as well). Storytelling is no longer, in most disciplines, regarded as a serious undertaking. I believe that storytelling is inherently a moral activity. It’s about organizing events and characters and landscapes and settings so that a series of events becomes explicable in the sequence of relationships that are unfolding over the course of the narrative. And almost always the narrative has some lesson in mind. One of the beauties of history is that, although there have been moments in which historians have argued with each other about whether they are objective or not, objectivity is actually not the phrase most historians use the describe what they do. Our goal, it seems to me, is to be fair to the people whose lives we narrate. That means trying to see the world through their eyes.

One of my beliefs as a writer and a teacher is that if I’m going to argue against something, it’s morally incumbent upon me to be able to articulate the thing I’m arguing against so that a person who holds that view recognizes that I’ve done justice to their point of view and could respond, “I couldn’t have said that better myself.” Then we can begin to enter into a dialogue about other ways of thinking.

My deepest moral project is to understand the world, which is a really complicated task, and my moral conviction is that rich understanding of the world leads to better, more responsible and just action in the world. We so often act on the basis of our own mythic conceptions; we believe our own lies, and we’re forever lying to ourselves because we want the world to conform to our convictions. Not letting ourselves do that is part of acting morally in the world.

For more context click here.

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