Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Truth" and History

I think I've figured something out about my frustration over the insistence that historians tell the "truth," or obfuscate the "truth," or are the keepers of "truth" about the past. The people who are demanding "truth" are demanding something that is essentially metaphysical or philosophical but that they think is objective. At some level, I think they want us to confirm what they already believe about the world, which of course must be true because who would believe a lie? (That's a whole other set of issues.)

In fact, the more I think about what the man in my last post said, the more I think that he was essentially telling me that the study of women's history is the study of lies or un-truths (possibly because it did not put the menz at the center, which is of course, not a description of HIS world, and therefore not true). He was really offended by the whole concept of studying the history of women.

Another man (who, god help us, is teaching history as an adjunct at our school), could only conceive of women's history as a nice history of the "group" but not really important to the "whole of history" unless a particular woman did something that affected major events. The reason to study history -- in fact, the definition of history -- was to tell the "truth" about the major events of the past. Wars and politics and stuff. The rest is just fluff about people who are unimportant because they didn't have starring roles. His seems to be the interpretation of historical research that I encounter most out in the public.

That's not really what historians do. In regard to "truth," historian want facts and evidence, and we want them to be accurate, but we want those facts in order to paint as accurate a picture as we possibly can of the past. We want to understand the past in all of its facets, not proclaim truth as if we are the Messiah.


Ink said...

I had an ongoing argument with a friend of mine about this issue. My point was what I think you're saying ~ who says history must *focus* on wars and acquisition of land? He would say "those things are most important." I would ask why and he'd say, "They just are, and, objectively, everybody knows it." (I finally wrote a short piece about our argument to vent but I'm still mad about it. Heartened to see your perspective here!)

Ann said...

I think much of the trouble here--what's not just misogyny and patriarchalism, that is--stems from the fact that most people think History is an end, whereas professional historians see history as a means, not an end in itself. That is, history is process, methodology, a set of questions, not a final, irrefutable conclusion or "truth" for all time.

Scientists have done a much better job explaining their jobs to the general public than we have. People I think get that science is a method, and that it reveals some truths so far as we can tell, but it's always about the ongoing process of revising and refining knowledge. This is why I'm so at odds with survey courses as we know them: they perpetuate the lie that history is revealed truth, rather than a method or mode of inquiry.

Belle said...

I agree with Ann; we don't do a good job of making what we do clear to outsiders. I disagree that it has to be that way in survey classes; I have worked really hard to make my surveys not just an introduction to real history, but an introduction to the field vs simply content. I spend time making sure they know that there's a huge difference between factoids and history. Wars and territory might be important, but more so are people and process, including the processes of investigation and synthesis.

I'm currently cringing at the factoid that a colleague got a major campus award for shoddy work. The differences in fields... grrrr.

And my word verification is perfect: ulognon. Just how I feel!

dykewife said...

yeah, why should women be listed in the history books. after all, what did we do? /sarcasm

Babu said...

This is a really interesting topic. It goes right to the heart of what we do for a living. I think the whole concept of truth has taken a beating over the last several years, climaxing with the parade of truthiness (selling as true what you want to believe according to Stephen Colbert) that came out of the trained monkey that ran the country for the past 8 years. Although he accomplished nothing else useful, Bush did in the end, though, illustrate pretty conclusively that there is such a thing as an objective truth and that you can’t wish or bully it away. Facts are stubborn things, you know.

There are two different kinds of truth that we can look for: the easy kind and the hard kind. The easy kind is the truth of discrete events. We can look back and try to prove what happened to a specific group of people at a defined point in time at a specified location. Doing this requires the same techniques regardless of what particular branch of history you’re dealing with. If your heckler wants to argue about this kind of truth, just teach him how to read a footnote and go on your way. You both come out ahead that way.

The other kind of truth is The Whole Truth, the philosophical search for the meaning of and order within human society. In order to learn that, all you need to know is what every person who has ever lived did for every second of every minute of every day of their lives. That, of course, is impossible to find out, and even if it wasn’t there is no way anybody could process that volume of information or relay it to an audience. Therefore, what we provide, just like the scientists and the engineers (they have similar limitations), is an approximation of The Whole Truth, where we as professionals provide an edited version of the past that we hope is a general fit to the complexity of what really happened. Your heckler believes that this is straightforward, that the forces of human history are like the forces that hold up a building. When engineers build a structure, although they know that an infinite amount of different forces impact it in some way, they assume (correctly) that most of these are miniscule and can be ignored, so they deal with only a handful of factors that work according to an orderly and predictable set of rules. Human history, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way. Instead, it’s a system that works a lot like the weather, where even a seemingly minor event like a butterfly flapping its wings in China can determine whether or not it’s going to rain in Houston. For example, in 1933 an obscure man named Guiseppe Zangara fired 5 shots at Franklin Roosevelt. He missed. Thirty years later, an equally obscure man named Lee Harvey Oswald fired 3 shots at John F. Kennedy. He didn’t. The entire course of history for the 20th Century in a lot of ways boiled down to the relative marksmanship of these two kooks. If you can’t explain history while ignoring the life and background of Lee Harvey Oswald, than what can you safely ignore? Women on the Overland Trail, gays in medieval Genoa, Jazz singers in New Orleans during the 1940s and Abraham Lincoln each impacted the world in ways that are difficult to measure and so none of them can be ignored. A lot of people have trouble with that concept. It goes against basically the entire intellectual tradition of the western world since the Enlightenment. The same tendency to define the history of women as trivial defines a 0.5 degree rise in the global average temperature and the extinction of the polar bear as trivial. Dealing with that mindset makes our lives as historians difficult. Dealing with the reality that that mindset is wrong makes our lives even more difficult, as it means we’ll never really have a complete understanding of what happened in the past. On the whole, however, I think it makes our jobs more interesting. Since nothing is unimportant we are free to follow what interests us. And I find it kind of comforting that in an unequal world everybody is important and that you can’t convey our history with anything resembling accuracy without acknowledging that.


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