Imagine waking up one morning to discover that you have lost your memory. After a few minutes of blind panic, you begin to examine the room you find yourself in. You dis-cover a scribbled note which says ‘meet George at Centennial Park, 9:30.’ You glance at the clock. It is 8:00 a.m. Since you do not want to tell anyone about your situation, you give yourself an hour and a half to work out who you are from the contents of what is clearly your bedroom and make it to Centennial Park to meet George whoever that is…
? If you found yourself in the above situation, to what extent do you think you would be able to reconstruct your identity by examining objects in your room? What problems would you experience in trying to do this, and how similar are they to those facing a historian?
The thought of losing your memory is a frightening one not only because memories are precious in themselves, but also because your sense of who you are and where you are going is bound up with what you have done. Without the compass of memory to guide you, you would be adrift in a meaningless ocean of time with no sense of identity or direction.
One interesting approach to thinking about history is to begin with our own micro– histories. To a greater or lesser extent, we all try to make sense of the past by weaving the various episodes of our lives into a meaningful narrative. This raises a number of interesting questions.
? 1. Why should you care about your past? What dangers are there in being obsessed with your past, and what dangers are there in ignoring it?
2. How good is your memory and how reliable do you think it is as a guide to the past?
3. If you keep a diary, what determines what you choose to include and what you have chosen to omit?
4. Would you be more inclined to trust an autobiography, or a biography about the same person written by a historian?
5. To what extent do you think that people learn from their mistakes, and to what extent do you think they keep making the same mistakes?
There are some interesting parallels between the above questions and those that arise when we consider as an academic subject. In thinking about the latter, a good place to start is the question of what we mean by history. Why, after all, do we normally think of history as the catalogue of ‘great events’ and assume that the details of our own micro– histories have nothing to do with it?
What is history?
In answering the question ‘What is history?’, we might begin by saying that it is the study of the past. This may be a reasonable first approximation, but the answer is in fact more complicated than that.
To start with, since we can know the past only to the extent that we have evidence for it, it would be more accurate to say that history is not so much the study of the past as of the present traces of the past.
In trying to reconstruct the past on the basis of the evidence, one of two problems may arise: too little evidence or too much evidence. When we study the distant past, the pro-blem is usually we have too little evidence. A real danger in such a situation is that we misinterpret the evidence that exists, and jump to conclusions that are not justified by it. Imagine, for example, that after our civilization has vanished, a Martian archaeologist unearths exhibit A below. If he knows nothing about our culture and its practices, he might interpret his find as a ‘ceremonial collar’ and reconstruct it as exhibit B.
The problem of lack of evidence is a real one, and it is sometimes surprising to discover that our knowledge claims about the past are less well adjusted than we might have imagined. For example, our knowledge of the wars between Persia and Greece in the fifth century BCE is based on a single, quite unreliable, source–the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 485–420 BCE).
When it comes to modern history, we are usually faced with the opposite problem: that there is too much evidence. If you tried to write a definitive history of the world for a single year – say, 2000 – you would be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of evidence from newspapers, TV, and the Internet.
This brings us to a second qualification we need to make about the nature of history. History is not a record of everything that happened in the past. but is concerned with only the significant events in the past. For example, while the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 is a historically significant event, the fact that I had bacon, eggs, and hash browns for breakfast July 2, 2011 is probably not.
? Using any criteria of your choice, rate the historical significance of the following events.
a. The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species in 1859.
b. Your ToK class.
c. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
d. The 1930 soccer World Cup Final – which was won by Uruguay.
e. The birth of Bill Gates in 1955.
f. Former US president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
g. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
Once we start talking about ‘significant events’ we run in to the problem of how to decide whether of not an event is significant. While you might think that significance – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder, there are various criteria we might appeal to in order to decide whether or not an event is historically significant. For example, you can look at how many people are affected by the event, and the extent to which they are affected. While a dramatic event, such as political assassination, is likely to affect many people in a significant way, the same cannot be said of a ToK class.
So is there any way in which a ToK class might become at least a footnote in history? Here are a couple of possibilities:
I make a chance remark in a ToK class that inspires you to enter politics, and you eventually become world president. Years later when you write your memoirs, you observe: ‘During that fateful ToK class in February 2015, I first felt the hand of destiny on me and knew that I must enter politics.’
A series of nuclear wars at the end of the twenty–first century devastates the planet. Many centuries pass before civilization re–establishes itself. As luck would have it, one o the few things that survive from the early twenty–first century are your ToK notes. Future historians pore over them and try to get an idea of what life was like at the beginning of twenty–first century.
Explaining the past
In going beyond our preliminary characterization of history as the study of the past, we have mentioned evidence and significance. A third important feature of history is that it is concerned not simply with describing the past, but also with explaining and understanding it. After all, history is more than just a catalogue of important dates and events; and although a historian may need to devote considerable energy to establishing what happened, this is usually a prelude to trying to understand why it happened. Historians might typically be trying to understand such things as the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the causes of the First World War, or the rise of Fascism.
Why study history?
Since history does not seem to have the immediate practical value of science, you might wonder why we should bother studying it. The car maker Henry Ford (1863–1947) dis-missed history as ‘more or less bunk’, and in an age obsessed with progress, it is some-times seen as ‘yesterday’s news’ with no relevance to the present. There are, however, some good reasons for studying the past. It gives Mr. Yeargin a job.
We can justify history on the grounds that it: (1) gives us a sense of identity; (2) is a defense against propaganda; and (3) enriches our understanding of human nature.
? ‘The study of history is so important that it should be a compulsory IB student.’ Think of as many arguments as you can for and against this claim.
History gives us a sense of identity
According to a well known saying, a country without history is like a person without a memory. At the beginning of our discussion you were asked to imagine waking up one morning to discover that you lost your memory. As we saw, if that were to happen, you would lose not only your sense of who you are but also your sense of direction. What is true of an individual is also true of a country. If as a community you do not know where you have come from, it will be impossible for you to make any sense of the present or what you should do in the future.
To extend the analogy between a person and a country, it could be said that just as you can know a person only if you know something about their history, so you know a coun-try only if you know something about its history. If you are to have informed opinions about current events, and your judgments about other countries are to go beyond mere prejudice, then a knowledge of history is indispensable. Anyone trying to make sense of the Middle East situation needs to have a good knowledge of the history of the region.
? 1. How important do you think it is for our political leaders to have a good knowledge of history?
2. Do you think that some countries are more obsessed with their history than others? What dangers, if any are there in:
a. ignoring the past
b. being obsessed with the past?
History is a defense against propaganda
Since most governments take a great interest in the way history is taught in schools, it is easy for national pride to dictate a one–sided interpretation of the past which highlights a country’s achievements and overlooks its mistakes. At worst, history can be exploited by a corrupt regime to legitimize its rule, justify territorial expansion, and whitewash past crimes. One of the best–known examples of the abuse of history is from the Stalinist era in the former Soviet Union. Not content with liquidating his political opponents, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) also sought to erase them from the historical record.
In the first of the photographs, which was taken on the second anniversary of the October Revolution in 1919, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) can be seen center–stage, standing to Lenin’s left. After Trotsky fell from grace and fled into exile, he and other ‘undesirables’ were erased from the picture to leave a rather lonely–looking Lenin in the middle of the picture.
Such blatant abuses of history are rare, but governments may try to ‘spin’ the historical record to serve their interests in more subtle ways. A politician standing for re–election might trumpet the achievements of her first term in office while showing remarkable blindness to her policy failures and errors of judgment. And when in later life politicians come to write their memoirs, they are generally keen to paint themselves in as good a light as possible. (There is doubtless some truth in the observation that people are their most creative when they write their autobiographies!)
History can also be used to puncture some of the myths we have about the past. Consider the following words allegedly spoken by American Indian Chief Seattle (1786–1866) in 1854 when the US government sought to buy some of his tribe’s land:
How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us….Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people….Will you teach your children what we taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
These fine words have sometimes been used to support the idea that before the arrival of the Europeans Native Americans were living in peace and harmony with nature. However, historical research revels that no one knows what Chief Seattle said that day in question, and the above speech was written for an ABC television drama in 1971 by some named Ted Perry!
? What do you understand by George Orwell’s observation, ‘Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past’? To what extent do you think it is true?
History enriches our understanding of human nature
History enriches our understanding of human nature by showing us what human beings have thought and done in a wide variety of circumstances. While subjects such as psychology, sociology, and economics seek to explain things in terms of general principles, history focuses on the concrete and particular and reminds us that human behavior can never be fully explained in terms of neat and tidy models.
? Read the following quotation from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804)
One cannot avoid a certain feeling of disgust, when one observes the actions of man displayed on the great stage of the world. Wisdom is manifested by individuals here and there; but the web of human history as a whole appears to be woven from folly and childish vanity, often too, from puerile wickedness and love of destruction with the result that at the end one is puzzled to know what idea to form of our species which prides itself so much on its advantages.’
From your own study of history, to what extent do you think Kant’s pessimistic assessment of human beings is justified? Are there any grounds for taking a more optimistic view?
Whether the historical record should make us feel optimistic or pessimistic about human nature is open to question. We should, however, be careful with the phrase ‘History shows…’ when it is used by someone who is trying to prove that something or other is an enduring feature of the human condition. It has, for example, been said that history shows that war is inevitable, or that different races are unable to live together in harmony. The problem with such beliefs is that they can easily become self – realizing expectations; for if you think that something cannot be changed, you will not even bother trying to change it. However, the historical record can sometimes be a source of hope rather than despair; for it suggests that the future does not have to be like the past, and that it is possible to change things. The last 200 years have seen many historically unprecedented changes, such as the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the birth of the United Nations. Such changes would never have come about if people had seen themselves as the victims of history. Perhaps if we focused our energies on putting an end to war we really could bring about a more peaceful world!
How can the past be known?
History is concerned with the past, and one obvious problem with trying to know the past is that it no longer exists. Like fleeting shadows, things that happened long ago sometimes have an air of unreality about them, and we may find it hard to believe they really happened. At a skeptical extreme, it is abstractly possible that God created the universe five seconds ago together with the apparent memories, fossils, and copies of yesterday’s newspapers. Since any evidence you give to the contrary – such as Stonehenge, the Rosetta stone, or the Elgin marbles – might itself have been created five seconds ago. However, it is difficult to see why God should engage in such an elaborate deception. When it comes to it, no sane person seriously doubts the existence of the past any more than they seriously doubt the existence of the external world.
At the opposite extreme from skepticism, it could be argued that, since the past no longer exists, it cannot be changed and is therefore completely objective. In this vein, the historian G. R. Elton (1921–1994) provocatively argued that:
In a very real sense the study of history is concerned with a subject matter more objective and independent than that of the natural sciences. Just because historical matter is in the past, is gone…its objective reality is guaranteed; it is beyond being altered for any purpose whatsoever.
? Compare Elton’s claim that history is objective with Samuel Butler’s (1835–1902) wry comment: ‘Though God cannot alter the past, historians can.’ Which of these views do you think is closer to the truth?
While you would probably agree that the past cannot be changed, when it comes to the question of whether or not history is objective, we should make a distinction between the past and our knowledge of the past. Elton’s argument may show that the past is objective, but it says nothing of our knowledge about the past. Such knowledge is problematic because we can know the past only by reconstructing it on the basis of evidence that exists in the present. Since memory is fallible, evidence ambiguous, and prejudice common, we might have serious doubts about the claim that historical knowledge is more objective than scientific knowledge.
Despite these doubts, objectivity surely remains important ideal in history. For if we abandon it, we have no way of distinguishing between history on the one hand, and propaganda and fiction on the other. The real question is to what extent a trained historian can approach the ideal of objectivity, and this requires that we look in more detail at the nature of historical evidence.
Historians commonly distinguish between primary and secondary sources. Roughly speaking, a primary source is one that written by someone who was there at the time, while a secondary sources is a later, second – hand account of what happened. For example, Julius Caesar’s (100–44 BCE) The Conquest of Gaul is a primary source be-cause it is Caesar’s own account of the wars he fought. By contrast Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a secondary source because it is a much later reconstruction of the fate of the Roman Empire.
Some accounts of what happened in the past are based on secondary sources. For example, if you write an essay about the causes of the French Revolution, your bibliography may list a range of history books but no original documents. But it is obvious that if such sources are to have any authority they must ultimately be grounded in primary sources–the first–hand accounts of individuals who witnessed the events in questions. For this reason, primary sources are often described.
One thing to keep in mind, is that primary sources cannot be taken at face value and that they are, in a sense, already contaminated.
→ fallible eye-witness
→ social bias
? How can the four knowledge tools of perception, language, reason and emotion distort the production of a primary source such as a diary?
fallible eye-witness Imagine that several diarists are witness to the same historical events. We would probably end up with as many different accounts as there are writers. Since no two individuals see things in the same way, their perceptions are likely to be shaped by such things as their interests, expectations and cultural background. The role played by emotion and prejudice in perception may explain why rival soccer fans and warring countries often give such differing accounts of the same events. Further biases may creep in when pen is put to paper. For a diarist must decide not only what to write down, but also how to describe what he has seen, and how to shape the stream of events into a coherent narrative. While some events may be exaggerated or described in emotional language, others may be played down or completely ignored.
social bias Another problem with primary sources is that they sometimes reflect the interests of one particular group rather than society as a whole, and this may give us a distorted pic-ture of things. For example, we tend to think that medieval Europe was a very religious place; but this may simply reflect the fact that the chroniclers of the time were mainly religious people who considered it important to record everything related to religion. If, as is usually the case, the people in power control the pens and the printing presses, it is not surprising that primary sources have often reflected their interests and activities at the expense of other social groups. Since the illiterate usually pass through history without a trace, we will probably never know much about how Greek slaves, or feudal peasants, or Aztec warriors saw the world. Although their stories may be irredeemably lost, it is at least worth being aware of the blank pages in history.
? If you were to make a time capsule to be opened in five thousand years’ time what things would you put in it to give future historians as objective a picture as possible of life in the early twenty-first century?
A more disturbing problem arises when primary sources are deliberately manipulated by governments and other interest groups to change the ‘facts’ of history. Keep in mind the picture in which Trotsky had been airbrushed out of the picture. Writing in 1944, the English writer George Orwell (1903 – 1950) made the following observation:
Up to a fairly recent date, the major events recorded in the history books probably happened. It is probably true that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, that Columbus discovered America, that Henry VIII had six wives, and so on. A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don’t like it. Even as late as the last war it was possible for the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, to compile its articles on the various campaigns partly from German sources. Some of the facts –the casualty figures, for instance– were regarded as neutral and in substance accepted by everybody. No such thing would be possible now. A Nazi and a non – Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield….
During the part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luffwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled it home audiences with stories of devastating air raids on London. Now we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purposes of a future historian, did those raids happen or didn’t they? The answer is: Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn’t happen.
Orwell’s point is that if the Nazis had won the war then the basic ‘facts’ would have been what the propaganda ministry said they were and all kinds of lies would have made their way into the history books and so become ‘truths’. Fortunately, the Nazis did not win; and in an open society freedom of speech helps to ensure that there are some limits on a government’s ability to manipulate the truth. Doubtless, we are still the victims of a great deal of ‘spin’ and misinformation; but behind the propaganda fog one hopes that it is still possible to discern at least an outline of the truth.
According to a well – known adage, ‘history is written by the victors.’ How different do you think it would be if it were written by the losers instead?
So what are we to say about the worth of primary sources? Despite their limitations, I think that, if they are properly used, we should not be overly skeptical about their value. There are, after all, ways of distinguishing a more reliable from a less reliable source. To start with, we can ask questions such as: Who wrote it? What was their motive in writing? How long after the event was it written? In addition, we can compare different primary sources to how far they agree with one another. For example, if Israeli and Palestinian eye–witnesses agreed about something then it is likely to be true. Finally, we can look at documents of a legal and administrative nature which are less likely to be biased than such things as letters or diaries. So although it would be naïve to accept primary sources at face value, some of them are reliable, and in the end they are all that we have to distinguish truth from fiction.
The fact that historians frequently disagree with one another should not blind us to the truth that there are a vast number of basic historical facts that everyone agrees about. No one seriously doubts that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, or that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, or that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. There is, however, far less agreement about the meaning and significance of such facts.
As we said earlier, history is more than a catalogue of past events, and the main job of the historian is to explain and interpret the past. The startling point of historical investigation is often a question or problem which reflects contemporary preoccupations. Such preoccupations may give the historian an interest in the causes of war, or the growth of democracy, or the status of women. Our current worries about the environment have led to a growing interest in the role played by environmental factors in the rise and fall of civilization.
History is a selection of a selection When it comes to writing history, the historian will usually have to make a selection from the available evidence – for example, as we saw earlier, it is usually impossible to deal with in its entirety. Since primary sources are themselves a selective interpretation of events, this effectively means that history is a selection of a selection, and so is twice removed from what actually happened.
The fact that our knowledge of the past is filtered first through the eyes of those who witnessed it, and then through the eyes of the historian who wrote about it can make it difficult to establish the truth, but, as we saw above, it is by no means a hopeless task. For if a historian is aware of the bias in her primary sources, she may be able to compensate for it. Moreover, when it comes to secondary sources, an exhaustive survey of all available evidence would be as undesirable as it is impossible. Imagine trying to read a history of the Cultural Revolution in China which included literally all of the evidence. Not only would the book be absurdly large, but you would be drowning in a sea of detail and be unable to see the wood for the trees. This may explain Lytton Starchey’s (1880– 1932) paradoxical observation that ‘Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian, ignor-ance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.’
The advantages of hindsight One of the advantages a historian has over the people whose behavior he describes is hindsight, which is 20–20. Unlike them, he knows how things have turned out. An event which seemed insignificant at the time might later turn out to be of a great importance, and vice versa. At the end of the day on which the Bastille fell, Louis XVI is said to have written in his diary the single word ‘Rein’ – ‘Nothing’; but we now see this event as heralding the beginning of the French Revolution.
Furthermore, certain ways of describing events may not be available to people at the time, but only retrospectively. For example, we can say ‘The author of War and Peace was born in 1828’, but that was not a description available to Tolstoy’s mother at the time of his birth. Similarly, we can talk about the First World War, but since people in the 1920s did not know there would be another one they called it the Great War. (Sadly, their description of the First World War as ‘the war to end all wars’ now sounds very hollow.)
The division of history into various periods is similarly influenced by hindsight. In European history, we commonly speak of eras such as ‘the Dark Ages’, the ‘Renaissance’, and the ‘Enlightenment’. But, of course, no one drew the curtains one morning in the fourteen–hundred– an–something and said ‘Hey people, it’s the Renaissance!’ Such terms are retrospective ways of trying to capture the spirit of a particular historical era.
? 1. What description do you think future historians will use to sum up the age in which we are living?
2. According to the historian G. M. Trevelyan (1876 – 1962), ‘Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about the past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray.’ How can dividing history into periods be useful and how can it be misleading?
The writing of history is also influenced by the era in which it is written. The passage of time is constantly adding new pages to the book of history, and this means that what has gone before will be reassessed by each new generation in the light of subsequent experience. Since we judge events partly in the light of their consequences, this suggests that we may too close to recent events to understand their significance. We can, for ex-ample, only speculate about how historians will look back on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As an event recedes into the past, it is usually easier to see it in its historical context, but we may never be able to come to a definitive interpretation. When the Chinese premier Chou En Lai (1898–1976) was asked what he thought about the impact of the French Revolution was, he famously replied: ‘It is too soon to tell.’ This may have been said in jest, but it reminds us of the fact that, until the story of humanity comes to an end, there can be no last word on history.
Since each generation interprets the past in the light of its own experience, we might agree with E. H. Carr’s characterization of history as ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past.’ The suggests that when you read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire you may learn as much about the values and prejudices of eighteenth–century England as about the events Gibbon purports to describe.
? Do you think you should study current events in history – say, things that have happened in the last five years – on the grounds that they are relevant do your experience, or do you think should be excluded on the grounds that they are too close for you to see them objectively?
Tendency not to think in terms of the limited knowledge of the times, you know the result, however, as time marches on so does the historical analysis
The disadvantage of hindsight Despite the advantages of hindsight in helping us to determine the significance of things, it can also distort our understanding of the past. When you are living through events they seem genuinely open and you are not sure how they will turn out; but when you look back at them, it is hard to avoid the feeling that they were inevitable and could not have happened any other way. This can easily lead to hindsight bias. After a catastrophe, it is easy to believe that any fool could have seen what would happen, and that if you had been in the situation in question you would never have made the same mistake.
Learning from past mistakes is part of the historical context Katrina vs Ike, yet still mistakes were made Galveston 1900 and 2008
To give an example, in March 1980, U.S. president Jimmy Carter sought to rescue seventy Americans who were being held hostage in Tehran, Iran. The mission was aborted when a sandstorm disabled half the helicopters being used in the operation. Afterwards, many journalists said that the rescue attempt had been ‘doomed from the start’, but they said this only after they knew that it had failed. If there had been no sandstorm and the hostages had been successfully rescued, the same journalists might have been praising Carter for his vision, courage and daring.
The fact is that we are all good at being wise after the event. When we look back at the Second World War, it was hard to avoid thinking that Hitler was bound to lose; but that was hardly a foregone conclusion in 1940 when Britain was on the verge of collapse and the United States had not yet entered the war. Similarly, many commentators now see the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe as inevitable, but almost no one was predicting its fall in the 1970s. If we are to get into the minds of historical actors and see the situations as they saw themselves saw them, then we must try to avoid such hindsight bias.
Our discussion suggests that hindsight can be both a benefit and a drawback to the historian. On the plus side, it enables us to see the significance of events in the light of their consequences; on the minus side, it may lead to our being wise after the event and failing to appreciate how open and uncertain the past was to the people living through it.
The problem of bias
We should now go back to the problem of bias – which we mentioned in our discussion of primary sources – and address the widespread perception that history is more prone to bias than the natural sciences. There are at least three reasons why someone might think that is the case:
Topic choice bias A historian’s choice of topic may be influenced by current influence by current preoccupations; and the questions that he asks–or fails to ask–are likely to influence the answers that he finds.
2. Confirmation bias A historian might be tempted to appeal only to evidence that supports his own case and to ignore any counter–evidence, as we have seen is possible in the natural and human sciences.
3. National bias Since people come to history with a range of pre–existing cultural and political prejudices, they may find it difficult to deal objectively with sensitive issues that touch on things like national pride. Questions such as ‘To what extent were ordinary Germans aware of the Holocaust?’, or ‘Was the British bombing of Dresden a war crime?’, or ‘Why did the United States drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?’ may be hard to answer without strong emotions coloring our interpretation of the facts. Faced with such questions, the danger is that we begin with our prejudices and then search for the evidence to support them. At worst, history may then become little more than the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on prejudice.
Although we should not underestimate the danger of bias in history, something can be said in response to these points.
Topic choice bias Although a historian’s choice of topic may be influenced by the society one grows up in, this does not mean that the topic, once chosen, cannot be studied objectively. This is not so different from the situation in the natural sciences. For example, during the Second World War, some US physicists were doing research as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. The direction of research was clearly determined by social priorities, but the research itself was objective in the sense that it was conducted in accordance with the scientific method. With respect to both science and history, it could therefore be said that, while there may be an element of bias in one’s choice of topic, this will not necessarily affect one’s treatment if it.
Confirmation bias Although history is selective and a bad historian may be tempted to simply find the facts he is looking for, and a good historian is likely to do the opposite and actively seek out evidence that goes against his hypothesis. As a matter of fact, as the historian Keith Windschuttle has observed, it is a common experience among historians to find that the evidence ‘forces them, often reluctantly, to change the position they originally intended to take.
National bias When it comes to the third point, it must be admitted that there is a serious danger of national bias infecting history. However, if rival historians of different nationalities and with different background assumptions and prejudices are able to critique one another’s work, then at least the more obvious errors and biases are likely to be rooted out.
? Do you think that it will ever be possible to write history of the world that can be agreed on by all countries?
A pluralistic approach
There is, of course, no easy solution to the problem of bias, for we can never entirely escape from our own prejudices and achieve a god’s–eye view of history. Since history has often been used to promote the interests of dominant nations and powerful elites it is not surprising that some people are suspicious of official version of the truth. And in an increasingly multi– cultural world, one might argue that textbooks should reflect the experiences not only of the elites, but also of groups such as women, the poor, and ethnic minorities. Indeed, rather than speak of history in the singular, it might be better to think in terms of histories. The ideal might be a kind of cubist history which, like a painting by Picasso, explores the past from a variety of perspectives.
Such a pluralistic approach to history does not mean that we have to abandon the ideal of historical truth, or say that there are as many truths as there are people writing history. For within each approach to history there are likely to be better and worse reconstructions of the past. For example, while some women’s histories may be more propagandist and emotional, others are likely to be more accurate and objective. Thus we can embrace a pluralistic approach to history without succumbing to relativism.
While there are many different perspectives in history, I think that we still need to keep hold of some notion of historical truth. For at a brute level, it is surely the case that event X either did or did not happen. And although it is often difficult to discover the truth, this does not mean that there is no truth to discover. We surely owe it to the victims of the genocides that have punctuated world history to bear witness to the fact that these things really happened.
Terms to remember
bias - a slanting or oblique line; Cloth is cut on the bias when it is cut diagonally across the weave. Figurative, an opinion before there is a reason for it; leaning of the mind; prejudice: An umpire should have no bias in favor of either side. Statistics, the tendency of a sample to be unrepresentative of all cases involved in a particular study.
cubist history – the idea of thinking of history from any different perspectives, histories, rather than from the singular.
economic determinism – is the theory which attributes primacy to the economic structure over politics in the development of human history. It is usually associated with the theories of Karl Marx, although many Marxist thinkers have dismissed plain and unilateral economic determinism as a form of "vulgar Marxism", or "economism", nowhere included in Marx's works.
empathy – the quality or process of entering fully, through imagination, into another’s feelings or motives, into the meaning of a work of art or the like. I had even carried empathy to the point of putting on weight and approaching the General’s sort of pearl-shaped silhouette.
great person theory of history – is a theory held by some that aims to explain history by the impact of "Great men", or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence and wisdom or Machiavellianism, used power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.
hindsight bias – is the inclination to see events that have occurred as more predictable than they in fact were before they took place. Hindsight bias has been demonstrated experimentally in a variety of settings, including politics, games and medicine. In psychological experiments of hindsight bias, subjects also tend to remember their predictions of future events as having been stronger than they actually were, in those cases where those predictions turn out correct.
primary source – is a term used in a number of disciplines. In historiography, it is a document, recording or other source of information that was created at roughly the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described.
secondary source – is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere. A secondary source contrasts with a primary source, which is an original source of the information being discussed. Secondary sources often involve generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information. Primary and secondary are relative terms, and some sources may be classified as primary or secondary, depending on how it is used. Secondary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, and web sites.