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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Just the facts, ma'am: historians and their history (controversy! fetishes! nudism! even the Ark of the Covenant!)

Over the years, among the courses I've come most to enjoy teaching are (believe it or not) those involving historical method and historiography, the history of history, as it were. Sounds boring, I know—for teacher and student alike—and it could be. But it's actually essential if students are to understand what the study of history is supposed to accomplish—especially given that many have such a bad experience in high school history class.

There is a classic type of methods or historiography class that entails either a whirlwind survey of historical writing from Herodotus to the present (or within a given field as the case may be) or heavy-duty theory, focusing on the abstract. They have their place (mainly in grad school, if there), but that's not what average undergrads need. Rather, they need to learn that history is not just about "the past" (things that have already happened is not really a meaningful field of study), much less a random collection of facts about that past. What history really involves, as the great historian Marc Bloch pointed out, is "the science of men in time": how the human being behaves in different settings. That means, among other things, understanding just how people in earlier periods were both like and unlike us: in other words, gaining a sense of historical perspective.

To be sure, the notion that high school history consists of nothing but memorizing meaningless strings of names and dates is an outdated caricature. Still, the problem is that high school courses, even when employing up-to-date insights and works (some of the same ones that I use) still fall short of the mark. For that matter, so do many in colleges and universities, but perhaps not for the expected reasons.

What did you say we were supposed to do?

Cognitive Psychologist and Professor of Education Sam Wineburg has made this problem a central task of his career: Historians are experts at what they do and therefore know it so well that it never occurs to them to stop and explain it. (An analogy might be starting up a car or using word-processing software. These are second nature to us: we don't reach for the owner's manual each time; indeed, we could not accomplish the task if we had to. But imagine trying to explain these activities to someone totally unfamiliar with them.) Students, by contrast, have no such expertise and experience, and are therefore often mystified or frustrated in the classroom: in effect, we ask them to produce something without quite telling them what it is, what we are looking for, and how to do it. (Hell, I'd be frustrated, too.)  The essence of the historian's expertise, as Wineburg sees it, is the interpretation of evidence, entailing "sourcing" (who created the document under what circumstances for what purpose or audience?) and "corroboration" and "contextualization," which allow us further to assess its accuracy and contemporary significance.

In his view, students tend to view faculty as generating neat "finished products" in their teaching and their writing. The solution, he says, is for professors to demonstrate how they work, primarily by making explicit the messy process of interpreting texts, including not just the aforementioned skills, but also very tentative nature of conclusions. Students would then come to see that both they and their professors are engaged in the same tasks and struggling with the same dilemmas, simply at different levels.

This semester, as it happens, I am teaching two such historiography courses, one aimed at beginning students, the other, at concentrators in the field.

The first course is built around the notion of debate. After some general and introductory material about the task of history and the nature of historical writing and thinking today, we launch into exploration of a series of concrete topics that allow students to see just how interpretations are formulated, criticized, and defended:
Many people have learned and are accustomed to thinking of history as an authoritative account of the past, based on indisputable facts. Scholars of history, by contrast, understand history as a matter of contested and evolving interpretation: debate. And they argue not just over the interpretation of facts, but even over what constitutes a relevant fact. This course will use some representative debates to show how dynamic the historical field is. Topics may include: Did women have a Renaissance? How did people in early modern France understand identity? Why did eighteenth-century French artisans find the torture and slaughter of cats to be hilarious rather than cruel? Were Nazi killers who committed genocide motivated by hatred or peer pressure? Are European Jews descended from medieval Turks rather than biblical Hebrews? Students will come to understand how historians reason and work. In so doing, they themselves will learn to think historically.
I have found that it is particularly fruitful to focus on these cases in which the basic "facts"—objectively established information, directly pertinent documentation, etc.--are limited and known, and yet historians disagree as to their interpretation. Just what, then, do the sources "mean"? To what extent do we need to understand other, contextual evidence? Where is the boundary between legitimate "interpretation" of the sources and rampant speculation or bias? Is everything just a matter of "opinion" Or, can we establish objective criteria for measuring validity?

And since we find ourselves in an election year, it's worth pointing out that these are skills that apply equally well to the political realm. In a sense, what we all do as citizens and voters is very much the same: Although no ordinary person can be an expert on everything from climate change and budget deficits to questions of war and peace, we are nonetheless required to judge the arguments of those who propose policies in these areas based on our best understanding of the relevant "facts" and general logic.

Facts, Fishmongers, Fetishes

Part of the challenge is not only that students think history is about "facts," but also that it does not occur to them (or sometimes: their teachers) to ask what a fact is. We therefore start with a selection from E. H. Carr's classic What Is History? originally delivered as the George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1961 (NY: Vintage Books, 1961). The first chapter, "The Historian and His Facts," not only lays out the underlying assumptions of the project but also contains a host of choice quotable passages revealing his inimitable style as well as incisive reasoning.

There, he attempts to explain how a justified reaction against moralizing and philosophizing history in the nineteenth century inadvertently led to an equally distorted "cult of the facts," which unfairly limited the historian's domain.

Citing the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of a fact as "a datum of experience as distinct from conclusions," Carr dismisses this as "the common-sense view of history" and introduces his ichthyological/culinary metaphor as a criticism:
The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions, and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. (6)
He goes on to explain why this notion of the fact is inadequate for our purposes. For example, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and that there is a table in the middle of the room are both "facts" but not of comparable importance. '[A] mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history" when a historian cites it and it is then "accepted by other historians as valid and significant" and becomes a part of their ongoing dialogue and debate. (11)

Carr defines the genuine "dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical" by contrasting it with the nineteenth-century "heresy that history consists of the compilation of the maximum number of irrefutable and objective facts":
Anyone who succumbs to this heresy will either have to give up history as a bad job, and take to stamp-collecting or some other form of antiquarianism, or end up in a madhouse. It is this heresy, which during the past hundred years has had such devastating effects on the modern historian, producing in Germany, in Great Britain, and in the United States a vast and growing mass of dry-as-dust factual histories, of minutely specialized monographs, of would-be historians knowing more and more about less and less, sunk without trace in an ocean of facts. (14)
He continues this argument, reinforcing it by continuing to employ the religious imagery:
The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of facts. The reverent historian approached them with bowed head and spoke of them in awed tones. If you find it in the documents, it is so. But what, when we get down to it, do these documents—the decrees, the treaties, the rent-rolls, the blue books, the official correspondence, the private letters and diaries—tell us? No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought--what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought. None of this means anything until the historian has got to work on it and deciphered it. (16)
It is in fact (no pun intended) precisely this point the that the oft-misunderstood quotation that serves as the motto of this blog—from the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), a "liberal" and "whiggish" historian if ever there was one, and great-uncle of the historian after whom Carr's lecture series was named—sought to make.

Carr goes on to show how the selection process of survival and publication of documents further constrains the value of the "facts" themselves. Finally, he argues that the satisfaction of the traditional elites with the social order reinforced the tendency to focus on the facts at the expense of a philosophy or concept of history:
The liberal nineteenth-century view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire--also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a supreme demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known sin and experienced a Fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question can no longer be evaded. (21)
And there we are (or were): naked in our own inadequacy. One hopes that the image will leave a memorable impression on the student mind.


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