Monday, June 21, 2004

Clio as Partisan: How History is used (or abused)

This post by Steven Den Beste looks like something I can sink my teeth into. Here's a sample:
In the 'new' 'enlightened' approach to history, you don't study historical events in order to learn the consequences and results of certain kinds of decisions and policies. History is a source of lessons, but you don't study history and derive lessons from past events. The lesson comes first. The conclusion is already known. You study history to find justifications for that lesson, but you already know the lesson is right before you begin that study.

He uses Howard Zinn (no stranger here) as an example, which is certainly one of the more extreme examples one could offer.

He has touched on something that has ALWAYS been part of the field of history: historians often set out to prove a conclusion, regardless of what the record tells them. He seems to think it is something that has occurred in only the last 30 years or so. In fact, the Progressive historians at the turn of the century argued that the American Revolution was primarily a social revolution (or two, externally against Britain and internally against the semblance of aristocracy in the colonies). In doing so, they projected back into the Revolutionary era much of what they were witnessing during their era when class and social tensions were coming to a head. (Similarly, the Marxist school viewed history from a social tension/revolution viewpoint and Marxist Historians apply this template to their study of history.) In short, if one has a 'theory of history', one tends to view history through that prism.

Once a theory is embraced, it is the rare historian who can temporarily disengage himself from his particular avatar of Clio to analyze history from a different perspective. (Perhaps the greatest trap that historians fall into is so-called "present-mindedness": the application of present-day values to the past.) Good historians may still have a particular central theory, but they are smart and open enough to bring in other theories to flesh out and inform them on the topic that they are focusing on. For example, an intellectual historian (focusing on how ideas affect history), if responsible, would also look at social, diplomatic, political, military, economic, cultural and even psychological aspects surrounding a historical event, person or problem to gain a better understanding. In essence, history is a wheel where, in this example, the hub is formed by the approach called "Intellectual" but supported by the various spokes of the other approaches. Without a hub (a core philosophy or approach to history) the spokes would simply collapse: without the spokes, the hub would not be able to extend and turn the wheel of historical knowledge.

I may have gone off of a bit of a tangent, though. In essence, Den Beste is talking about those historians who have allowed political ideology or dogma to predetermine their historical finding, which isn't necessarily the same as allowing oneself to be dominated by a particular theory of history. It may be a subtle line, but there is difference between:
A) Viewing history through an ideological lens, but gathering ALL information (even that which may counter your ideological preconceptions) to formulate a historical work in an attempt to get closer to historical truth, or
B) Determining a historical truth that aligns with an ideology and then fitting the facts (or even just using facts that support your argument) to prove the predetermined conclusion.

We cannot take away our biases, but we can attempt to suspend them so that we are receptive to other points of view regarding history. This doesn't mean that all points of view are ultimately valid, but to a historian, they are at least initially so until their veracity is disproven. I have no problem with dogmatic belief, per se, as it is important to be able to know what one believes without necessarily having to delve into the a priori beginnings of those beliefs. For a good explanation of the difference, and benefits, of dogma versus philosophy, I'd recommend Jonah Goldberg's piece, posted today. It's well worth the read. (hat tip: Justin Katz)

Keith Windschuttle, an Australian, presented a paper (Paper to NSW Higher School Certificate History Extension conference, June 2 2004) that also touched on this problem. The beginning and end of his presentation are especially germane to the topic (the main course of discussion is his explanation of how he blew apart a myth regarding Aboriginal genocide on Tasmania). The whole piece is interesting and instructive of what objective historians have to contend with within the field. (I've touched on the dangers of relativist postmodernism before, so I'll refrain...this time). His conclusion serves as a perfect ending to this post:
None of this means you cannot draw political conclusions from history. Indeed, history remains one of our best teachers of political lessons. But it can only teach us well if we set out to seek the truth. If we start historical research with our political minds already made up we are doing no more than re-circulating our existing political prejudices.

Let me finish by emphasizing that all historians have a public responsibility to report their evidence fully and accurately and to cite their sources honestly. To pretend that facts do not matter and that acceptable interpretations can be drawn from false or non-existent evidence is to abandon the pursuit of historical truth altogether. Historians who do so betray their professional duty to preserve the integrity of the ancient discipline of history itself.


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