To succeed as a historian, question what you think you know

High School history

On an April 2021 episode of SNL, Bowen Yang appeared on Weekend Update as the iceberg hit by the Titanic. Yang’s ‘iceberg’ is ostensibly there to promote his new album, but after prodding by Weekend Update host Colin Jost, he gives in and starts talking about The Sinking.

It sounds like you think you’re the victim here.’

Well everyone’s talking about me, no one is talking about THE WAAATER! What did the autopsies say, they icebergded? No, they DROWNED. That’s not me, that’s WATER. But nobody’s canceling the ocean.’

While this is certainly a funny take on a historical tragedy that has played a sustained role in American popular culture, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the portrayal of the Titanic, I found this clip a really useful illustration of what I think is the best way to do good history: stop working from ‘accepted wisdom’ and start asking questions. In other words, flip your perspective. 

Let me illustrate this with another well-known aspect of the Titanic story. The idea of ‘women and children first’ has been associated with the Titanic since the ship sank on the night of April 14th, 1912. At the time, the conduct of the men lost in the sinking was heralded as the latest example in a long tradition of manliness, heroism, and selflessness. This portrayal persisted through a string of twentieth-century dramatizations of the sinking, all the way through to James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. But in the early summer of 1912, newspaper editorials began questioning whether or not ‘women and children first’ should have applied equally across all classes of passengers—should a Titan of Industry, major employer and contributor to society, John Jacob Astor, have died so that a poor, non-English-speaking immigrant woman could live? Women of all classes were quickly blamed for the Titanic disaster, and opponents of the developing Suffragette movement pointed to the policy as evidence that women weren’t ready for the vote—if they wanted a say, the argument went, they shouldn’t expect preferential access to lifeboats. 

Despite the proliferation of such racist, classist, and sexist arguments in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic, only recently have scholars thought to probe the ‘women and children first’ narrative and reframe the treatment of women in the aftermath of the disaster. By studying nineteenth-century shipwrecks, Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson determined that ‘women and children first’ as an ideal had never really existed, and that the Titanic is actually the only shipwreck of the long Victorian period in which a majority of survivors were women and children. Furthermore, if you examine the fatality reports for the recovered remains of some of the 1,500 people who died in the sinking, being a woman or a child was not so great a determinant of whether you lived or died as was being a first or second class passenger. Hundreds of women and a number of children still died in the sinking of the Titanic—they just were mostly all in steerage.

As you work on your writing and research skills in both history and other subjects, remember to keep questioning what you think are the given facts or accepted perspectives on an issue. Well-researched papers question the ‘facts’ you might have taken at face-value from your high school history textbooks. You should revisit primary source material, think critically about who produced such materials, and why—and work out whose voices you might be missing if you don’t dig and search out alternative perspectives. Like Yang’s iceberg says, ‘There’s so much going on beneath the surface that you cannot see.’

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