Let’s discuss sources and the value of studying history

Frequently throughout my undergraduate career and even during my short time thus far as a graduate student, I have often been asked what I would do with history and why I was studying. While most of these questions were innocent enough, the premise behind others is that one goes to school to train for some particular role in society in order find a job, make some money, and one day get a mortgage, a house in the suburbs, and have two and a half kids. The questions were occasionally voiced with some concern, since a B.A. in history, financially speaking, is not worth much and there is certainly no secure career path with that degree. I understand and appreciate that people were worried that after graduation I’d be living on the street debating the relative merits of Thucydides, Latin subjunctive constructions, or the origins of the First World War with all my fellow unemployed history majors. However, going back to the original premise – that we pursue higher education in order to secure a place in society where one has a steady income and is consequently able to live a sanitized existence, this was never the intention of a humanistic education. The exigencies of the modern western economy and society have come to praise those which keep the material wealth cycle moving and the expectation is that the university system will play its role in that death spiral.

I am not here to argue for the value of an arts education. I am, however; going to argue for the value of studying history. Unfortunately, largely thanks to poor curriculums and teachers, many seem to have the idea that history is knowing a variety of dates and facts that one can recite at will. There is some degree of that in history and it does come in useful, but what historians do is tease out those facts (caveat lector: imagine inverted commas around that word every time you see it, and not just here) through the careful analysis of sources. Having some basic background in dates and facts is important to have just about any educated discussion on any topic. Even in the sciences, if you’re looking at the results of past experiments, you’re interpreting and using history. Politics cannot be discussed outside of history. Precedents (ie: history) is essential in law. History is nearly everything and everyone interacts with it constantly, so wouldn’t it make sense for the proper study of history to receive some serious attention?

It may appear to many that the main role of historians is to spit facts at an audience, since the place where most people see historians is in the lecture theatre or as a talking head on a TV program. The reality is that we spend most of our time working with sources (I, for one, have never been interviewed for TV). These sources rarely come down to us in a nice format (and when they do, there’s reason to be suspicious). They need to be analyzed, categorized, often translated or at least read in their original language, and interpreted in light of other historical sources. This is the absolute basic foundation upon which the modern study of history rests upon, and one cannot deviate from it. If one wishes to posit a particular source is the best account or interpretation of some event, then they need to provide further evidence to demonstrate that the source is valuable or useful. For example, if I wanted to say that the siege of Alesia happened as Caesar described it, I would argue that Caesar is an important source because he was present and directed the siege, that de Bello Gallico is likely based upon military reports sent back to Rome, and that there were too many Roman witnesses and potential enemies of Caesar for him to have wildly fabricated his account. I would also be required to look at what other ancient accounts of the siege of Alesia say, and then examine what modern scholars have said, since I might have misinterpreted some part of the Latin text, and others who have actually visited the site would have an understanding of how this applies to the text. Likewise, if I wanted to look at the big naval battle between the Arabs and the Romans off the coast of Lycia in 654/5 AD I am compelled to examine Theophanes, and yet am faced with the difficulties that Theophanes wrote almost a century and a half later, relied upon sources that were themselves distant from the battle, and sloppily constructed his chronicle. Of course, these are extremely basic examples and all of them would need further work, but they suffice to make the point here: that the sources are no good on their own and they need further analysis, both internal and external.

Broadly, sources exist as primary or secondary, although the definition is a bit loose. By the strictest definitions, Plutarch is a secondary source. He worked from texts and oral tradition to compose an account, much as modern historians do today. However, since he is an important source of material from the ancient world and wrote in ancient Greek, we tend to refer to him as a primary source. Likewise, a secondary source can also be a primary source. This post would be considered primary material by someone studying how history is discussed in the age of digital media. Generally, primary sources are those who had access to the event. A soldier’s memoir detailing his time in Vietnam would be an example of this, although when working on ancient and medieval history a primary source tends to be anything ancient or medieval: closer than us and not early modern tends to suffice to meet the definition. Secondary sources are typically works written about the events in question, and in academia are usually those which are written by scholars. These are not immune from criticism either. Just the other day I had a book review accepted by a major journal in my field. The book was good, but there were a number of errors in it and I’ve exposed those in my review. It’s possible that the author or someone else will respond to my criticisms and render some of them invalid (but I hope not!) This is how scholarship works: you make your point and you argue for it based upon the evidence. You then present that evidence to your peers who are also familiar with that material and historical methodology and they examine what you have done to see how your premise stands up.

If you’re not able to defend your position based upon evidence, your thesis will collapse. Pretty basic stuff, right? This is why the academic study of history is so important: it gives you the skills and the mindset you need to approach materials, whether they be a Mycenean jug, a medieval manuscript, or a newspaper article from this morning. History teaches you to critically analyze the sort of information that you come across in daily life. A historical education is not important just for the sake of antiquarianism or having some picture of the past, although these have some value on their own, but for justice and tolerance and humanity as a species. While this may sound excessive, the main skill history teaches is deconstruction, which extends beyond history itself and to everything around us. It’s difficult to demonize another group of human beings for trait X when you see that trait elsewhere and realize that the claims made about that group have no basis in reality. It’s difficult to claim nationalistic exclusivity when you realize that the people you’re supposedly claiming ancestry from had no conceptions of group solidarity in any way that you do.  It’s difficult to blame some religion for something when you see that the cause of the event is enmeshed in another dozen critical factors. It’s difficult to hate another culture when you’ve looked at your own from the outside and have come to understand that maybe it doesn’t have all the answers. It’s difficult to idolize another culture that glorified horrific things. The conclusion to this repetitious series of points is that properly done, history allows one to understand others and to reserve judgement until all the evidence has been critically analyzed and reviewed. Hopefully, by that point, it will be clear that history is rarely black and white and some appreciation for the complexity will be gained. I’m a Byzantinist because I find Byzantium to be a fascinating, alien society that both belongs to the west and the east (if we can talk in such broad terms; there’s my historical education speaking), not because I think that they hit upon some magical formula that made everything wonderful for them. I am continually bothered that a society which placed the Christian religion above all could so readily mutilate their enemies, and yet they claimed they did it as an act of mercy. History allows us to understand that others are complex and fascinating, and by doing justice to the past we create the mindset needed to bring justice to those who need it today. It’s difficult to hate when you come to see that atrocity breeds atrocity and hate breeds hate, and that the “enemy” may not be very different at all.

Now, since I’m an historian I am fully aware that such utopian visions are bound to fail since they always do and we cannot escape human nature. However, we are not bound to that nature, and the skills that history provides are an important part in overcoming the knee-jerk reaction to easy answers that we seek. Because everyone interacts with history regularly, having the ability to criticize it is essential. Politicians, religious leaders, demagogues, and yes, even us ivory tower folks, have been known to use history to suit their own purposes and agendas, whether for some petty squabble or to secure power by creating an ideology with historical roots. For a rather tame example, the Canadian government has spent some money on making the War of 1812 public knowledge. Ottawa is bedecked in banners hanging from lampposts illustrating characters and battles from the war. I have heard criticisms that this is an attempt by the conservative government to militarize Canada’s past in order to militarize Canada’s future. Not having looked into the issue, I do not know what the intention is, but in the very least the portrayal is rather tasteful and tries to incorporate various viewpoints (the Americans, the natives, women) and is thus a far cry from some of the shrill military propaganda produced in the 20th century. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of history and a willingness to question what the authorities have created raises some outstanding questions: why is the government trying to Canadianize an event that happened half a century before Confederation? To what degree was this war a Canadian vs. American conflict? What relevance does this have for us today and why is the government investing money in this project?  A sound historical education keeps one asking questions like this about everything and about every portrayal and use of the past. It’s not about knowing some dates or facts or the answers, but acquiring the skills to break down each and every portrayal of an event and question its sources and how they are being used. One imagines that if such an education was widespread, the dangers of easy answers from governments, educational institutions, religions, and groups of every agenda would be somewhat ameliorated. History is about questioning every narrative and the material which it is based upon, and rather than leaving us adrift with nothing to hold on to it liberates us to be more fully human and escape the often destructive stories which we use to dictate our existence.


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2 Responses to Let’s discuss sources and the value of studying history

  1. abtwixt says:

    You’ve touched on a lot of really great points here that are very near and dear to me. You’ve described well the often-overlooked merits of the study of history (and, I would argue, many of the social sciences), but yet, as you said at the beginning, these merits are not “rewarded” in our society. What you described is the process of an individual becoming what we call “well-rounded”, which although this may have been well lauded 300 years ago, today it can indeed leave you scrounging for low-level employment. This frustrates me to no end; the self-serving generators of money are rewarded, while the social-serving generators of knowledge and well-being have no place in society.

    But anyway, that’s not really what you were talking about. /end rant. Great post!

  2. David Withun says:

    As someone who majored in history as an undergrad (and, even worse, my minor was in philosophy!), I sympathize with your “pain,” so to speak, and I think you have done a wonderful job in this post of not only defending us history majors but defending the discipline of history as a whole. I believe the role of the historian should be something like the role bards once filled, guardians of the past and transmitters of our collective heritage. As such, it pains me to see the disregard with which history (and, really, all of the liberal arts) is treated today. Forgetting the many great (and not so great) ideas, people, events, etc. that have shaped who we are today is like cultivating collective amnesia. And it’s a recipe for disaster.

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