Critical Enquiry

The Study of History

If you ask most people what the study of history involves, they'll probably recite the old piece of doggerel about "names, dates, and places." This is what generations of students have been exposed to in public schools, and it's usually done in a very dry and boring style. The school rhyme "in the year of fourteen ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" sums up the way history is taught. Name: Columbus. Date: 1492. Place: ocean blue. Boring, tedious, and ultimately useless. Kids memorize this material, then either forget it completely after passing a test or mis-remember it and end up with no useful knowledge.

This is sad, since history is actually an exciting topic when presented in an engaging way. One way to do so is by showing students how people have viewed history over the centuries, a process known among historians as historiography. This is "the study of the study of history." It's arguably more useful to learn how others viewed history than to memorize the names of all the US presidents, in order, since George Washington. Basic historiography teaches perspective, critical thinking skills, and provides a springboard for further study. If you're teaching chemistry, you (hopefully!) don't just have students run experiments with no context or understanding of what they're supposed to reveal. Likewise, someone learning to build houses isn't told to blindly nail boards together in a pre-determined pattern; instead they're taught the basics of design, structural loading, and current building code. In other words, students are taught theory along with practice.

The problem is that, in general, public school history courses don't teach theory. Instead they're often conducted using texts that follow, for example, US history since 1600 in a chronological manner. Students are tested on the same names, dates, and places that their parents learned. At best, they might be told that Columbus was looking for a shorter sea route to India in order to improve Portugal's spice trade (which is wrong, by the way).

Historiography, on the other hand, introduces students to the way history is done. It talks about how various historians and schools of history have viewed the past. It also helps determine what history "is" to a group of people. Meaning in history is a major topic. For instance, many Christian royal houses in Europe created elaborate family trees that were used to legitimize their rule. For these houses, history involved reinforcing this allegedly lengthy past and their part in it. Facts and evidence were irrelevant, unless they supported the right of the king or other ruling body to remain in power. Thus, under such conditions history was made to fit the pre-conceived notions that served the government.

Many schools of history have appeared and vanished throughout the centuries. These have included

Many others exist. In one case, historian Daniel Boorstin is said to have once asserted during a discussion that " there is no theory of American history." To this another historian is said to have replied that this in itself was a theory. This may be simply bandying semantics, but it is also a vaid viewpoint.

Another aspect is critical historiography, which is a more structured set of questions designed to determine the nature of any history being produced. It asks various questions, such as these (from Wikipedia)

Several of these questions address critical points such as objectivity and how material is chosen when writing historical material.

Historians do not write in a vacuum. They are influenced by cultural conditions during their lifetime, their friends and family members, their own choices of which events are and are not relevant, and other factors such as upbringing and even social position. These influences determine the manner in which they present various events and actors. Is a powerful president portrayed as a tyrant, or as a man taking a stand in order to re-establish lost social norms? Are guerilla warriors "freedom fighters" or "terrorists?" For a clear example of this conundrum, one need only look at the 1857-58 war between Britain and elements of their local Indian army. Modern British histories name this series of events The Sepoy Mutiny, and claim the common people were only barely involved and even then they supported the British side. Indian histories cite the same events as The First War of Independence and claim a much wider level of support from the common people. Each interpretation is correct-- from a given perspective. But it is probably certain that neither is written objectively.

Objective h istory should be written in a dispassionate voice. Historical writings should not exalt or deride the actions of the actors they discuss. Instead, they should place these actions and actors in context, and make an attempt to offer possible rationales behind their actions.

Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2010 Richard E. Joltes. Excerpts may be used where proper credit is given and permission is obtained in advance. All rights reserved.