Books written by professional historians are referred to as monographs. They are in a category different from that of popular historians (whose work tends to better grip the attention of readers, though is not obligated to present all the evidence and in an objective way). Popular historians can, for example, discuss the merits of Franklin Roosevelt in a book, and is under no obligation to discuss his flaws, his affair, or his cunning, manipulative manner as a wartime president. This is not to say they will not discuss these facets of his character, but they do not a duty to do so. The history put out by popular historians will acquire the interest of avid readers, and Hollywood, if there is enough attention (note: David McCullough’s John Adams, which is not completely historically accurate, but as he is not a professional historian, he is under no obligation to be).
Professional historians must adhere to strict code. Only after tirelessly exhausting all possible (or in many cases, accessible resources) can a professional historian call his or her work complete. And even then, it is usually called into question by other historians of the field. These historians must present all the evidence, no matter if it clashes with the argument, or tarnishes a person normally held in high esteem. Professional historians offer the history through the eyes of the evidence. They interpret all the evidence to portray the most accurate picture. If they exclude the cunning nature of FDR in a monograph, they will lose credibility, and appear to hold a bias.
Objectivity is the life blood of professional historians. It is rare to acquire it in its entirety, but it remains the higher goal to which all professionals must aspire. The result is usually a drier form of the popular historian’s history, but it is usually a better rounded picture. Steven Ambrose’s Band of Brothers may have been a popular HBO series, but its accuracy has been called into question. He is undoubtedly a historian, but he is not a professional historian. He can portray the history to fit the story he wants to disseminate, but that is not the objective of the professional historian.
Popular history is very easy to watch (I truly enjoyed Paul Giamatti as John Adams), but when watching, do remember that historical accuracy is not always the primary goal. History, as accurate as possible, while holding the interest of people who normally dislike history, is more typically the goal of the popular historian. This is no way meant to demean; rather, it is to differentiate and explain why some historical monographs put people not overly interested in history into a coma and others peak their interest.
This category can flow into the next medium: the classroom.
Many professional historians are college professors. The difficulty, for the most, does lie in this level. Rather, the problem is at the primary and secondary levels, where history is little more than memorization. The classroom is usually one of the first, if not the first, places where children are exposed to history. Unfortunately, rather than enticing them to further study and inquiry, the memorization of seemingly unrelated and unimportant people and events is both tedious and aggravating to the young mind. This is wrong though.
We do not use vegetables to entice a child to eat their meals. We use creative tactics, incentives. Just the same, we cannot merely offer the boring ol’ facts without suggesting that there is something else good to come. Granted, it is still academia, but if children can learn to embrace it, all of us will eventually gain an appreciation for all subjects, including that most hated of them all – history.
There are of course other mediums of history, not discussed here, but these are some of the pertinent ones which I have run across in my research and studies. The point behind this novel length defense of history (reminscent of St. Augustine, perhaps?) is that, like a teenager’s feelings during puberty, history in our society is misunderstood.
As evident, history can be found almost anywhere, when you choose to pay attention. Ironically, it is not something that can be brushed off because encompasses everything. All academic subjects are important, but the unfortunate part is that history always gets a bad rep, and it is equally as important as the others in its own right.
I am not so bold as to suggest everyone should know the duration of both World Wars (although were someone else to suggest it, I would not disagree). I cannot, however, help but cringe when people tell me that World War I was in the 1920s, and World War II ended in the 1950s. It is not that I feel angry that people do not know these dates; it is more so the recognition that people did not find these events important enough to recall the dates. If we can all get a basic foundation of historical facts instilled at a young age, it just might be possible to ensure an appreciation and respect for the interpretation of our past. And the rest can be left to historians.