What Naomi Wolf and Cokie Roberts teach us about the need for historiansRoundup
tags: historians, academia, public engagement, Naomi Wolf, Cokie Roberts
Karin Wulf is executive director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, and professor of history at William & Mary. She is also a co-founder of Women Also Know History.
It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.
Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.
But like medicine, law or engineering, history is a profession for which scholars spend years learning crucial skills and absorbing bodies of work that help them to interpret the past. While we can and must encourage more people to dig into our past and work to better understand it, we also must understand how critical the specialized toolbox of historians is to getting the past right.
The Roberts incident highlights the limits of casual inquiries into the past. Last week, when she was asked about the history of abortion in the United States during an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” she claimed that, in a search of 19th-century newspapers, she never found an incidence of abortion advertised. That led her to conclude that historians who had written about the frequency of abortions during this period were distorting history, driven by their own political views.
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