On the Pursuit of Lost Historiographical Causes
In every field, there are many unexplored or partially explored issues that may turn out to be important. But, in all likelihood, they are dead ends.
I compare this pursuit to an inventor who has an idea that a particular line of inquiry will lead to a major discovery. He may be correct, but he probably is incorrect. Most inventors are part-time inventors. They don't do it for a living. They may do it for the sheer joy of the pursuit. They may hope to make a lot of money. They may hope to change people's lives. There are many motivations. But the reality is this: most people who begin the pursuit of some great breakthrough fail. We read about the ones who did not fail, but there are plenty of stories of people who made the breakthrough, and who never made any money off of it. The man who got to the patent office two hours after Alexander Graham Bell did is long forgotten. He did not make any money.
I think it is generally futile to become a full-time historian. There are too few jobs. You have to spend your life teaching not very bright students. They take the course probably because you have a reputation of giving easy grades. I was recently told this about Ralph Raico, who was an extraordinary historian, but who, unfortunately (for me, anyway), wrote very little. He described his career as follows: "I would begin teaching a group of students who could not find Portugal on a map. At the end of my course, they had never heard of Portugal."
I encourage people to become part-time historians. There are tens of thousands of Americans who are part-time historians of the Civil War. They are remarkably well-informed. Unfortunately, they rarely write. But, with free website software, there is now no legitimate reason why they should not publish book reviews, reviews of articles, and specialize in some area of the Civil War. This is equally true of regional or local historical investigations. There is lots of work to be done.
In the field of historical studies, part-time explorers and translators of petroglyphs often find very useful items. These items point to the fact that conventional historiography of pre-Columbus America is incorrect. But these studies virtually never get accepted by academic historians. What they find is never reported in any textbook. One such organization is the Epigraphic Society. It publishes a regular journal. The journal is never quoted in academic circles. These people have been doing this for decades.
Are these amateur explorers wasting their lives? I don't think so. They are making legitimate discoveries. But as far as influencing the academic guild, their efforts really are wasted. They have to decide whether it is worth it to them personally to make a unique discovery, even though the discovery will never be incorporated into the narrative of pre-Columbus America.
Yes, there's always the possibility that there will be a breakthrough that somehow does get picked up by academic historians, but the odds against this are astronomical.
I would tell somebody who is interested in petroglyphs that it's a good hobby, but it is only a hobby. To have any hope beyond this is psychologically self-defeating. The person is going to be disappointed, and this may lead to the person abandoning his hobby. But his hobby is good for him, and it is good for a handful of people who want to make sense of pre-Columbus America.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. It's a lesson I produced for the Ron Paul Curriculum.
Then there are the conspiracy historians. Here, there are real psychological pitfalls. Conspiracy historians really do think that there's a possibility that they will be able to penetrate the thinking of the masses of Americans. They think they're going to do an end-run around the academic guild. They also imagine that the masses of Americans are interested in history, which except for Civil War history and perhaps some other military histories, is a delusion. There is always room for another book on Lincoln, as long as the book is not critical of Lincoln. Of the thousands of books on Lincoln, only a handful are critical, and their arguments rarely make it into the textbooks. When an idea does make it into a textbook, such as Lincoln's obvious infringements on due process of law regarding the publication of antiwar opinions, the historians shrug it off or apologize for it.
The same is true for Woodrow Wilson in his efforts to get the nation into World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt's similar machinations to get the nation into World War II. Initially, all such arguments regarding Roosevelt were dismissed as being Republican crackpot theories. Then, in the 1970's, a handful of historians began to conclude that the original critics of Roosevelt were correct. But then the authors said that Roosevelt was justified. The obvious example here is Robert Stinnett, who has written the most effective book on Pearl Harbor, Day of Deceit (2000), who apologizes for Roosevelt's deliberate deceptions at the beginning of the book. On the first page of the Preface, he speaks sympathetically. "I understood the agonizing dilemma faced by President Roosevelt. He was forced to find circuitous means to persuade an isolationist America to join in the fight for freedom. He knew this would cost lives. How many, he could not have known." This apology did Stinnett no good in academia. The academic guild dismissed his book as one more apology for isolationism, circa 1941. The book gained no traction. Its thesis is presented in no college or high school textbook on American history.
Then there are the part-time conspiracy historians. These people will read one or two books on conspiratorial movements in American history. They may read a few books on conspiracies in Europe, beginning with the French Revolution. Such conspiracies existed. The great book on this is James Billington's magnificent Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. You cannot understand European history of the 19th century if you are not familiar with the book, and more than familiar: you have read it two or three times, and you remember many of the details. The book is literally indispensable. It was published in 1981. That was the last we heard from Billington. He took Reagan's offer to appoint him the Librarian of Congress in 1987, and he kept the job for the next 28 years. He never wrote another book. He got sidetracked. We are worse off for it.