I recently had a chat with a good friend of mine working on his PhD dissertation in English. He said he loathes meeting someone new and admitting that he is an English PhD student. The reason? He often gets a trite response like “oh I better mind my p’s and q’s” or “I better watch myself and not to use a double-negative”! He asked me if there were any parallel annoying one-liners to studying history and I’ve thought of one culprit:
“Oh studying (insert New World nation here: USA, Canada) must be easy since they don’t have much history unlike (insert European nation here: France, Britain)!” *
A) This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what historians do. They don’t memorize dates and facts that are unchanging gospel and then somehow finish the task. A PhD in History isn’t about learning 3 times or 4 times more “facts & dates” as a Bachelor’s degree in History. More it’s that they analyze what we think we already know about a period and try to say something new, uncharted, undiscovered about it. Or prove something we’ve thought all along has been a mistake. Or find a way something in the past got us into a current situation. Or reassess a group or people or event that’s been side-lined or maligned. You could write a historical thesis on American 1940s feminine hygiene product advertizing, for instance, and what it meant in relation to women in the workplace during WWII. Or follow-up with its implications vis-a-vis the push for traditional suburban life in the 1950s. Something from 50 years ago is no less historical than 500. You’ll never “run out” of historical research. Ever. There is no final word on the subject. Ever.
B) Most historians only do strict segmenting of history between nations because of the classroom. You can’t talk about British history without talking about French history without talking about American history without talking about Mexican history. So, yes, historians will have their areas of expertise but it’s as likely to be a theme (labor, military) as it would be one modern-day country. They sort it out into neat, nation-state categories for text book publishing and classroom purposes. The further along one studies the more it all starts to get wonderfully blended and messy.
C) It’s kind of racist. Saying “the USA has no history” implies that only white people’s’ history is “real history”. People lived in the US and Canada and Mexico during the Thirty Years War and the Crusades. Just because they weren’t Caucasian and weren’t swinging around cool swords like in Spartacus: Blood & Sand doesn’t make it any less historical.
* occasionally China or Japan is granted honorary “Old World” status here.