Historian Interaction and the Canadian Historical Association

Last week we introduced the Canadian Historical Association and how its origins lay in ensuring historians connect with each other while professionalizing the discipline. Today we're going to touch on one of the seeming downsides of the CHA as a place for historians to disagree.

As an organization that bound historians together, the CHA also legitimized their authority to communicate the past. The CHA began as a group of scholars interested in history. A historian was once anyone who wrote about the past, but it slowly became less of an assumed title and more one that was granted. Now it is expected that you have gone through graduate school, that you have published original research that contributed something worthwhile to historians' understanding of the past, and that you have attended conferences to interact with other professional historians. So becoming a member of the CHA and attending its meeting is an important step for any grad student seeking to one day be a “professional historian.”

As any regular reader knows, we at Clio's Current don't think that historians must pass all these milestones. Historians are better assessed by the quality of their scholarship and understanding of the past. Historians should be defined by how accurately they discuss past events and individuals, their impact on others, and what was known at the time. Certainly the process above helps imbue these values, but by no means are they limited to them.

Nonetheless, the CHA has a useful purpose. It ensures historians easily find others who understand and value history, allowing them to engage with their topics in a different way. These are people who live and breathe the past, as much as the avid fan might live and breathe hockey or baseball. They know it inside and out – and if you are one of those people, it's hard to find others who equally appreciate it. It also breeds a devotion to particular understandings of the past, as you believe that history should be understood in one specific way. We here are guilty of that as anyone (though hopefully it's clear we respect dissenting opinions). When you mix all these intelligent people with opposing opinions, sometimes so different that they disagree even on what is “history,” you get some tension.

So the interaction that occurs at the CHA is not always positive. In the past, there has been criticism towards the editors of the CHR who were seen as preferring one field of history over another. In the 1970s, historians had a hard time publishing working-class histories in its pages, as they often reflected on left-wing ideological themes that did not seem appropriate to its editors. By the late 80s/early 90s, political histories had a hard time passing editorial review, as they were trumpeting nationalist or exclusionary narratives that no longer “had a place” in Canadian history. Certainly these disagreements were expressed at the meetings of the CHA as well, and often resulted in bitterness or wariness towards other historians on the “other side.”

In part this was a result of the nature of historians' professionalization. Their authority to communicate Canadian history distinguished them from “popular historians” like journalists or other authors. It was a necessary distinction if only because it made a historian more valuable to society (since they alone can determine history), but also because with that authority came trust. You could trust a professional historian to write accurately about the past (within reason since no one is 100% accurate). But with the advent of different ways of interpreting the past, the authority of professional historians came into conflict. Who was the most right? Who could say that one historical perspective was more right than another? As much as the professionalization of Canadian historians helped establish a community of scholars, it inevitably led to a conflict of ideas as that community grew and changed.

The 1960s saw the rise of “history from below” which turned historians’ perspectives upside down. Instead of looking at history from the view of “above,” which is high politics, economics, or war, historians looked at the past that had been overlooked, like that of women, non-whites, the working classes, etc. Previously, historians had ignored these groups since they had “no impact” on history that was shaped by the wealthy and powerful. Historians gradually agreed that all history had value and all people had stories worth telling.

In Canada this transition can be traced through the pages of the Canadian Historical Review and at CHA meetings where historians debated the future of their profession in the 1960s. Ramsay Cook and JMS Careless famously asked historians to examine the “limited identities” of the past – limited because they did not reflect on the larger “Canadian” identity which had been so vital to Canadian historians in the 1940s and 50s. They suggested that Canadian historians could explore regional or provincial narratives that were more inclusive than national histories. They advised their colleagues to create more cohesive and wide ranging histories in Canada.

In the decades that followed, Canadian historical studies expanded to include these different identities, fields and more. As we discussed last week, conflict developed between the older, traditional historians who focused on political/military history and a new generation of social historians. Their views about the past differed greatly. The debates over the nature of Canadian history and its future direction were argued over at the CHA and in the pages of history journals across the country.

Even though the debate and dissent among historians over these differing interpretations of the past has led to some ruffled feathers, and perhaps more than a few bruised egos and hurt feelings, it was and continues to be a good thing. Historians are by nature traditional and conservative – we study the past and in doing so we impose more value upon it than others might. This is not a commentary on historians' politics, as there are many left-wing historians, but rather on their attitudes towards change within the field and discipline of history itself. Historians often resist change and it's valuable when other historians confront, dispute and argue about how we interpret the past. It doesn't matter who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the long term. The exchange of ideas is far more important, both for those writing and discussing history, as well as those who read it years later.

By attending the CHA and publishing in its journal, not only are historians exploring Canada's past, they are leaving a record of how we view history. It's easy for professional historians to forget the importance of that, since it's so ingrained in our minds. On the other hand, it's hard for non-historians to understand why disagreement is so worthwhile. Our scholarship is always changing, evolving, and updating itself. As good historians, we need to record those changes so future historians can one day understand how we thought about the past today. So even if the CHA and their conversations might seem impenetrable to non-academics, it is a living record of historians' changing perspectives and Canada's changing history.