Victor Davis Hanson wrote a book called The Western Way Of War that turned most of everything we thought we knew about Greek warfare on its head. For instance, we’d always assumed that generals gave long, inspiring speeches to their troops before battle, just like they did in ancient literature. Hanson went ahead and actually tried on a hoplite helmet and it turns out that speeches would have been pretty worthless since none of them had any earholes.
And for a really long time, historians had just taken the phrase “then the troops laid waste to the land” completely for granted. Hanson was clearing trees and vines from his property in Central California when it became obvious that the notion must have been symbolic, not literal. Uprooting olive trees is difficult with tractors in the year 2009; it would have been impossible at any scale for a Greek solider.
Hanson’s most important contributions to the history of warfare didn’t come from study but from experimentation and inspiration from an active life. Now we have an accurate, practical understanding of a style of war that was steeped in unspoken communication between soldiers and a sensitive concept of sovereignty between nations. All because Hanson trained himself to question obvious assumptions and to have the curiosity to catch small clues that once examined, open a rabbit hole of new information.
In other words, the most important skills he has as an academic have nothing to do with the classroom. Nor are they best put to use there either. So the next time you hear a professor pontificating in a scholarly journal or a dataphile obsessing about a pedantic detail, remember how often they will be completely disrupted by some tinkerer unafraid to put basic assumptions to the most important test: everyday life.