The following is a response blog to Michael Peter Edson’s piece in Medium, “Dark Matter.”
Hey, History major here. The higher-ups of my field are, honestly, TERRIBLE at promoting themselves, their work, and the past. Their use of outdated formats drive away casual history lovers and reserves the “best” history for an insular group of insufferable elitists.
Edson points out the large cognitive dissonance between “memory institutions” like universities, museums, and historical societies and people on the street when it comes to learning history.
People are interested in this stuff. I know them. You know them. Family members, neighbors, friends. We ALL are interested in the history of something. But it takes a special breed to read 100,000 words to learn about Egyptian astronomy from an “accepted” source. That’s a problem.
I’ll start by analyzing the divide between legacy media and new-age entertainment as a corollary. Fueled by the technological innovations of the 21st century, platforms like YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and Netflix do VASTLY better numbers than old heads NBC, CBS, and ABC.
Stuffy execs have tried to breach this generational guide to little success. Dismal efforts by big-name corporate shows emphasize this divide (for reference: see any Jimmy Fallon video with a TikToker or streamer… or don’t. I actually recommend you don’t).
It’s quite clear that old media just doesn’t get young people.
In addition, independent internet personalities flourish on digital platforms because they don’t have bureaucracy of writing rooms or FCC guidelines above their heads.
In the same way, digital AP teachers like John Green at CrashCourse don’t have to jump through as many hoops as a salaried high school teacher just to use a new resource to explain how, for example, America impacted the French Revolution.
This means that, quite frankly, their teaching product is better. Ask any college-level math student. The random Indian YouTubers you find at 3am can teach derivatives in 1/20th of the time it takes a tenured Calc prof to.
Historical institutions, as Edson outlines, suffer from the same affliction. Why do fourth-year history students need to write a 20-page capstone paper that few could bear to read through? Would a 3 or 4 part documentary, podcast, or digital collection not convey the information in a more relevant and easily accessible format? Shouldn’t professors be able to work on similar projects instead of having to push out books that no one reads?
Yes, and yes.
However, the subtle classism (I’m talking about socioeconomic dynamics, not the Ancient Greeks tripping on shrooms as you’d find in classicism – check out this book if you do want to read about that) of Western higher education has never quite left. Written prose has been the communication tool of elites for centuries. The only problem? No one likes reading anymore. Look at me contradicting myself by plugging a 400 page book; ironic, no?
Likewise, private access to rigorous (and in the current historical moment, necessary) peer review makes it next to impossible for those who escaped academia to be treated as “real” historians.
And, I hear you – every history prof I’ve ever had. I know, I know.
They’re in my head… prodding me to Say the line.
That’s what we’re told in most of our undergrad classes.
However, a chef could make the most delicious cake, but if it looks horrible from the outside, no one would ever get to enjoy it.
I view history the same way.
We should be embracing dynamic new forms of technology to showcase history, not rejecting them out of self-elevating snobbery.