When Experts Are Forced to Talk to Outsiders

Teaching undergraduate students forces me to deliver narratives and explanations to people who do not share my professional assumptions about how the world works and the way history should be told. It challenges me to think about how I can retell old stories with a different vocabulary. In the process I might even learn something. This is especially likely to happen when students ask me questions or express strong feelings about a major event. I last noticed this phenomenon in the fall, when I had my students visit the Holocaust Museum and discuss their experience in the course’s online forum. I got to thinking about it again today because of an article about innovation in the New York Times last month. Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike, by Janet Rae-Dupree, points to the benefits that can accrue to experts when they open themselves up to the perspectives of outsiders.

Rae-Dupree’s article suggests to me other possible sources of historiographical innovation. What if we spent more time talking to historians doing research outside of our narrow areas of expertise? Such conversations should occur not only among historians with different regional specializations, but also among historians who study quite different things.

This understanding of innovation also points to the intellectual bankruptcy of arguments some historians offer in condemnation of their colleagues’ use of theoretical work from other disciplines. Drawing on the work of scholars in other fields can be highly productive. As a graduate student, I found the theoretical and empirical work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu both stimulating and productive. I used it in my research, if not in my narratives, but I always used to wonder if historians’ eclectic use of such work might lead to some rather unorthodox results that the original sociologist might reject. Nowadays I do not think any such rejection would bother me or undermine the value of the work I did. Maybe it takes an outsider to spark innovation in history, and maybe it also takes a historian to see a new way to use an outsider’s ideas.

This line of thought presupposes that innovation in history is a good thing, provided that it is true to the sources. Those who subscribe to the notion that history is only a recreation of the past as it actually was will probably object. I suspect, though, that while Leopold von Ranke’s view of history informs the working ethos of most of us historians, most of us are also more skeptical—and modest—about our ability to recreate such a past, especially in view of our rapidly changing present, which affects how we see the past.