I was asked the other day how a non-historian might go about asking good historical questions, specifically in the context of the subreddit /r/AskHistorians, which I frequent. I kinda liked my response, so I thought I’d share it here.
This is a question which is best answered by negative as well as positive examples, and there are several types of poor question which are quite common. An incomplete list (ie. my pet peeves) would certainly include:
- Anything involving Hitler.
- Homework questions. If the question title is shockingly specific and sounds like something from an AP exam – “How did Lincoln’s assassination change Reconstruction?” – it’s probably going to be ignored, particularly if it comes with no further discussion by the OP.
- /r/atheism bait. “Did Jesus actually exist?” “Has anything good ever come from religion?” etc. This can be generally expanded to any sort of leading question. The idea that one of my responses will probably be used out of context to defend some point I won’t agree with in another sub gives me a squicky feeling.
- Questions that ask why something didn’t happen. An example of this, and my own reply, can be found here. These are almost universally unanswerable.
- Questions which seek facts.
This last one requires a bit of explanation, and provides a great segue out of negativity land.
Your primary and secondary education probably taught you that history is about facts, and from the very beginning you were forced to memorize facts. “The American Revolution began in 1775,” things like that. Dates, information. Everything you learned provided a simple, neat answer in factual form, with little ambiguity.
This is not history. Facts are the building blocks of history, its skeleton, but they do not give it life or purpose, because the practice of history is the practice of understanding someone who is not you. It is is an act of sympathy, of apology in the most fundamental and original meaning of both words. Correctly done, it is the full and unbiased understanding of the people of the past as they were and as they saw themselves. We are, to borrow the brilliant phrase of a terrible bigot, speakers for the dead, and our essential purpose is to cultivate a mental approach to those who are not ourselves which seeks to understand, rather than to categorize and judge.
This is not the natural state of the human mind. To quote the late, great David Foster Wallace:
Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
The promotion and indoctrination in a historical mode of thought is thus the indoctrination in a way of approaching the world that attempts to separate us from that basic impulse to understand the world based on our own preconceptions. Teaching this is what historians do. All that stuff with dates is just a side hobby.
So, coming back to an answer: a good question is one which seeks understanding. They are ones which provoke complex answers which increase the understanding of what it means to be human. They seek answers, not facts.
That seems like a tall order, and it is. The ability to ask good historical questions is one which requires substantial training, and that is training most schools do not provide. All is not lost, however. We’re quite good here at shaping and responding to questions asked by people who are not experts. If you give us some material, we can work with it. Some tips for this include:
- Ask about things which seem to be contradictory, ideas that people held simultaneously that seemed to be opposed to each other.
- Ask about processes, not events.
- Don’t ask a question to which you want a specific answer which reaffirms your worldview (see: atheism bait, above).
- Frame your questions positively.
- Always be open to feedback – in fact, seek it out! – and refine your questions based on the answers you receive.