What is History? An Essay

Every once in a while I like to post a “proper” essay with citations and everything. This one tries to answer the question, “What is History?” There is no simple answer to this question as you will see. 

History is an educated guess on a wing and a prayer.  Mere shadows of the past come to life in history but can shadows be trusted?  Our views of history can be revised, mis-understood or completely wrong.  History can be pigeon-holed and molded to fit an ideology, point of view, or interpretation.  History can drive a nation forward in a singular goal or it can be stripped of all semblance of reality by censors trying to hold back the unfettered truth.  History nearly seems unattainable because of the minefield of bias and ulterior motives it must constantly escape.  Using sound methodology and shrewd judgment, modern historians valiantly attempt to piece together the past in a reliable way only to realize again that history is not static. History remains a half written sheet of paper constantly in the state of revision, teetering on a ledge waiting for the latest research, interpretation or trend to whisk it in a new direction.

The elusiveness of history can be the result of many factors.  Often time facts become distorted by individuals wanting to espouse something other than historical preservation.  This makes the truth difficult to pin down.  For example, Robert Williams explains how a photograph taken of a dead civil war soldier at the battle of Gettysburg may not be as it appears. Historians have argued that the soldier died elsewhere and was dragged to this dramatic setting between the famous outcroppings of rocks called ‘Devil’s Den’ on the Gettysburg battlefield (68).   In a possible attempt to make a more interesting picture, the photographer puts in doubt the soldier’s role in the battle, and it possibly compromises the veracity of certain aspects of the battle.  Others have written history riddled with speculation which may help strengthen our understanding of an event’s background but may not bring us closer to understanding the truth (Williams 126).  Others still have written purely fictitious accounts of events which have no basis in reality.  It can be a dizzying prospect for an amateur to wade through the historical claims espoused by various individuals.

Ideological fervor can also lead to a history that supports one point of view or overarching objective at the risk of compromising the truth.  The movement of historical interpretation called metahistory sought to define history in terms of one “all-encompassing meaning” (Williams 20).  In the 20th century, this led to much ideologically driven fervor using history to support one point of view which furthered a particular goal or political agenda such as the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich or the Marxist view of class struggle (Williams 23).   When history is driven by ideology, it typically judges harshly the opposing point of view while lauding its own.  This can make the truth of history difficult to discover.  Trinh Cong Son was a famous revolutionary song writer of the Vietnamese communists.  He wrote anti-war songs that were popular in both North and South Vietnam.  However, he eventually was arrested and sent to a reeducation camp because he incorrectly spoke of the war with America as a “civil war” (Lamb 109). North Vietnam communist ideology viewed the Vietnam War as the Vietnamese struggle to be free against the American imperialists.  It was a continuation of the colonial struggle to expel the foreigner – something the Vietnamese did many times in their history when attacked by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and now the Americans.   They would not accept a history of war that described as Vietnamese brother against brother.  That is why when Saigon fell to the communists on that fateful April day in 1975, Colonel Bui Tin, speaking to the south Vietnamese general he assumed power from said, “Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten” (Karnow 684).  All Vietnamese who sided with the Americans were merely puppets in the view of the Viet Cong.  History driven by ideology can have a short selective memory which can distort facts and make the truth more elusive.

Some suggest there is no such thing as history.  This anti-history movement led to relativism in historical interpretation making one historical account just as valid as another without necessarily paying due diligence to the accepted facts (Williams 28).  This lack of absolute truth makes it easy for one person or group to deny any part of history they like.   History can be anything that best suits one’s own ideas while the most widely held claims about history can simply be ignored.  Williams elaborates how some post-modern thinkers believe that history does not exist at all.  There are no facts, and there is no past.  There are only stories and one story can be just as good as the next (30). This can lead to many people believing things which are contrary to the most widely held historical views.  For example, one person might deny that the Holocaust ever happened, and this is sadly not an uncommon position in today’s world despite a wealth of evidence saying otherwise. One has to look no further than some of the rhetoric coming from Iranian President Ahmadinejad to see this.

If one was telling the story of life in the U.S. south during the 1950s and 1960s, one might paint the south in terms of the civil rights struggle and use the historical contexts of landmark court cases such as Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education to show the African-American struggle for equal rights in a society which once condoned slavery and segregation.  However, if a white supremacist such as Bryon De La Beckwith, who was convicted of killing civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963, had written about the south during the 1950s, he most assuredly would have denied the importance of these court cases and would have painted a much different picture of southern society.   Historical interpretation based on bias, opinion and partial facts without using the normal rules of logic and argument is what Williams calls pseudo history (31). But if one person wants to interpret history their own way and leave conventional wisdom behind, they may do so and unfortunately there will be others who will listen and believe. This can further muddy the waters of history.

Furthermore, history really is open to interpretation.  Using one side of an argument but omitting another can paint two very different pictures of the same period of time.  Historians have to carefully weigh all the evidence and look at the historical process over a period of time to get a full view of events. Take, for instance, recently retired President George W. Bush.   If a historian wanted to look at the Bush presidency and assess his job performance, he or she could chose from so many different angles which could show Bush in a positive or negative light. For example, he or she could focus on Bush’s dismal popularity ratings as he left office, the fact that there have been no terrorists attacks on U.S. soil since 911, that he left office in one of the greatest economic downturns in the past 50 years, that he removed a murderous dictator from power in Iraq, that he failed to find weapons of mass destruction, or that the surge of troops sent to Iraq in 2007 dramatically improved conditions on the ground. This pick your angle game can go on and on without end.  Hopefully, scholars will in the years to come give a fair and unbiased treatment to all of these issues concerning the Bush administration and then let the chips fall where they may.  However, this will not stop individuals from highlighting his successes and minimizing his failures or vice versa.  Likewise, there most likely will never be a complete consensus.  Some day most historians may agree that the Bush presidency was successful or unsuccessful, but the point is that no one has to take their word for it.  Someone else will come along with a new piece of evidence, a new angle or a new interpretation which will shift the historical dialog into a new discourse.

Another important reason history can be so elusive is that history continues to change.  Though past actions actually occurred in a certain way, they are not certain to us in the present. Our understanding of what actually happened is constantly changing due to new evidence being discovered which leads to new interpretations, new conjectures and new arguments.  New technologies can also shed new light onto past events.  For example, the advent of DNA technology has brought new life to the old argument about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.  DNA evidence has shown that a relationship exists between the descendents of Jefferson and Hemings (Williams 77). However, even with this evidence it cannot be conclusively said that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ son because as Williams points out it could have been one of Jefferson’s relatives (77).  New evidence can shine light on a historical issue which merely sharpens the debate and gets everyone ready for the next round.

If history is so elusive, is it really impossible to accurately pursue it?  Is it so uncertain that it is a waste of effort to try to understand the past because our attempts to do so, as some will contend, will only tell us more about the present than it will about the past (Tosh 22)?  Certainly not!  Modern historical methodology suggests that while historians may not always to be able to perfectly construct the past, there are sound methods which can enhance our understanding of history in a reliable, logical and commonly accepted way.

Historians craft arguments about the past drawing conclusions based upon carefully researched evidence and logically reasoned points (Williams 102).  Historians pose questions and then probe for answers.  Historians should never start at the end point and work backwards.  A question should be posed and then let the trail of evidence go where it leads.  Sometimes this might lead to unpopular discoveries which go against a country’s sacred social memory (Tosh 21).    Historical research, however, should not be done in a vacuum.  Peer review is a powerful way to elicit constructive criticism of a historian’s argument.  A person’s assertions should be made to stand up against the conventional wisdom.  Historians use historiography to review how certain topics have been covered by others.  This many times leads to revision which may one day make the new argument the new conventional wisdom (Williams 117).

The intellectual movement of historicism has sought to free historical arguments from political motivations or ideologies. Historicists attempt to view the past on its own merit understanding that the people’s attitudes, preconceptions and life experiences are profoundly different from this day and age (Tosh 6-7).  These ideas have a profound impact on how to effectively craft an argument which will stand up to peer review and conventional wisdom.  Historical research must recognize the vast differences between the people and situations of the past.  This is a difficult task.  Tosh describes this as trying to use empathy to imagine the past in ways that are completely foreign to us today (10).  He goes on to describe how everything has to be put into context and must never be pulled from the setting or viewed as merely one event in a long sequence of events (10-11).

A sound argument will also be one which looks at the historical process of how events are connected over long periods of time (Tosh 11).  For example, a person researching the late 19th century temperance movement in the U.S. would likely want to see how that movement eventually succeeded in amending the constitution and bringing prohibition to the nation in 1919.  However, a further look might have one wanting to investigate the impact the temperance movement had on the criminal organizations and illegal trafficking which occurred during the 1920s.  It may also lead to a study on how the temperance movement continues to affect the present day view of alcohol consumption in different Protestant denominations. By looking at the big picture of history and keeping views grounded in the correct context, historical arguments are more likely to pass the test of respectability.

Historians spend a lot of time and effort probing through primary sources and examining evidence before making an attempt at reconstructing the past.  Are the sources reliable?  Is the evidence tainted in any way?  All evidence has to be examined with skeptical eyes.  Nothing can be taken for granted.  For example, let us suppose that in twenty years a researcher wanted to discover what went on in the Gaza Strip when Israel attacked Hamas in late 2008.  He or she comes across a quote from Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi saying “Why did it (U.S.) allow Israel to kill children, elderly, women and other innocents” (One Voice).  Based upon this, he or she could write an article that vilifies America and Israel, but does it truly show what happened?  It would be a historical quote from a world leader about a world event, but it does not really talk to the historical veracity of what happened in Gaza.  Careful cross checking of other primary sources from this era would give very different interpretations of what happened.  The historian has to wade through it all and present, as much as possible, an unbiased account.  This is much easier said than done.

Another way that the telling of history has become more reliable and richer in context is that the realm of historical research and documentation is no longer looking at the male dominated past as the only aspect of life which tells history.  According to Williams, the development of women’s history in the past fifty years is one of the most significant historical developments.  He says that by expanding history to look at neglected areas such as marriage, sexual relations and motherhood among other topics can reveal new information about previously studied topics (121-122). Karen Turner expanded the view of the Vietnam War as she showed the crucial role that women played for the Viet Cong in her book Even the Women Must Fight. The oral histories of women in war provide a wealth of new insight and information about what really happened, and it highlights the badly neglected contributions of women who affected the outcome of the war. It is no longer acceptable or desirable to approach a historical matter in a way that minimizes the roles of women or minorities.  A great deal can and has been learned by these new approaches.

A modern historian has many tools and methods available to him or her in order to reconstruct the past in vivid and exciting ways.  Yet, despite using correct methodology, history remains as elusive as ever.  Once a new interpretation is fashioned, the argument continues.  New evidence is uncovered, and the process heats up all over again.

Works Cited

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Lamb, David. Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns. New York: Public Affairs, 2002.

“One Voice”.  Star. [Malaysia] 13 January, 2009: 1.

Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006.

Turner, Karen Gottschang. Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North

Vietnam. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

Williams, Robert C. The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of

History.  New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2007.





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