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Old August 5th, 2010, 05:55 AM   #1

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History and Historians


I'm not sure how most people think history is studied or written, so I thought I'd try and explain some of the aims and objectives and methods academic historians use in their work.

OBJECTIVITY

Which means putting aside moral judgements (at this point) and keeping a completely open mind. The aim of the historian is to interpret, often from very scanty data, what happened and WHY. This leads down a long path of looking for and excluding parallels, causes, and vital factors. What a historian often finds is unexpected and usually not what he was looking for.


HISTORY IS ABOUT IDEAS

Not so much about dates, apart from how those dates interrelate with other events. Could the Russian revolution have happened as it did, where it not for WW1?

People who look for evidence (and disregard countervailing views) to "prove" their own prejudices are JOURNALISTS, not Historians.

Historians cannot and should not assign simplistic and irrelevant attributes to their subject. Such answers are almost always too simple and disregard many parallels and other factors. A historian has to try to see things as the person he is studying saw them: just because you do not agree with the principles of, say, Communism or Nazism in no way invalidates the fact that BOTH schools of political thought had ends which were deemed "good" in the eyes of their major figures. A Historian does not assume that someone with monstrous views is a fake, a liar. Look not for maniacs or monsters, look for things which made those maniacs or monsters- and indeed, a monster is a value judgement one should not be making at that point.

FEW THINGS HAPPEN IN ISOLATION.

Would Henry VIII have founded the Protestant Church of England, if it wasn't for Protestant agitation elsewhere? I think not. Wasn't Nazism the culmination of not only millennia of anti-Semitism but also a reaction against more recent German history? Could the American revolution really have had so much impetus without similar thought in Europe, and particularly France?

History is not made up of nice, neat little factlets. Casual study or "pet" theories can make one think that way, especially amongst TV Historians. Closer looks almost always negate or completely cancel such ideas. It is ALWAYS more complicated than you think.


JUSTIFY YOURSELF!

Yes, you'll hear that one a lot if ever you do history as a degree or upwards. In academic study of history, two things will become clear and will be repeated a lot:

1. How do you know what you know? Do you know the opposing views? Why are they invalid?

2. We don't know. True historians are less sure of their facts than anyone! That's why you see so few of them on T.V: because the public doesn't want someone stood there saying "well, we're not really sure....".

Believe me, a good lecturer will not let you get away with anything.....

BE EXTREMELY SCEPTICAL

When studying primary- or secondary- material, be sceptical. What motives might an author have for writing? Wouldn't one expect a Conservative writer to condemn the Trade Union movements? Or a Communist to condemn the ideas of Adam Smith (and therefore anything that came from such ideas)?. Wouldn't a Conservative Royalist condemn Cromwell? Bias is everywhere: it shouldn't be, but it is. One who believes in Jewish World Domination is also likely to believe that the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are real. These people are rarely MAD or LIARS.

Primary sources are no better: Robert of Jumieges (Norman historian to William I) write his account of the England/Normandy affair, stating that Archbishop Stigand crowned Harold King, whilst English sources state than he was crowned by Aldred, Archbishop of York. BOTH have powerful motives for saying what they did. Who is right?

Real Historians can give you the answer: "We don't really know".

In an academic setting, you will NOT get away with value judgements in the body of your work, you won't get away with ignoring counter-arguments, you will not get away with ignorance and you most certainly will not get away with Journalism or distorting facts a la Dan Brown. You will not get away with being shallow under the banner of being "succinct". "Succinct" answers do not really exist in history: try mathematics if you like succinct. Or Twitter. Circumstantial evidence is merely that: circumstantial. It "looks likely" but the real Historian's answer is: "we don't really know". Are you seeing a pattern here?

So when one writes a post about even the most simple of subjects, it almost always ends up more than a one line wonder. Perhaps, now you know why.

I am not suggesting that everyone does this! This is not a University, and most of us come to Historium for fun and casual debate. Each to their own, but study of history, like anything else, requires just a little effort.

But next time you come across a long post on a subject you like, why not take the time to read it? You'll learn many times more- or at least gain more to think about- (if you have an open mind: and if not, why not?), than a thousand, pat but ultimately empty one line wonders. You'll find lots of these: why add to them?

It does no-one any harm to have their ideas shook up from time to time. A closed mind accepts no more learning.

And, here's the good bit- it makes history even more fascinating and fun. Honestly!

But the more you learn, the less you'll find you are sure of.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:03 AM   #2

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Re: History and Historians


Amen, Black Dog: You wrote lean and true! Thank you for a well thought out and delivered package!
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:05 AM   #3

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Re: History and Historians


Quote:
Originally Posted by Black Dog View Post
I'm not sure how most people think history is studied or written, so I thought I'd try and explain some of the aims and objectives and methods academic historians use in their work.

OBJECTIVITY

Which means putting aside moral judgements (at this point) and keeping a completely open mind. The aim of the historian is to interpret, often from very scanty data, what happened and WHY. This leads down a long path of looking for and excluding parallels, causes, and vital factors. What a historian often finds is unexpected and usually not what he was looking for.


HISTORY IS ABOUT IDEAS

Not so much about dates, apart from how those dates interrelate with other events. Could the Russian revolution have happened as it did, where it not for WW1?

People who look for evidence (and disregard countervailing views) to "prove" their own prejudices are JOURNALISTS, not Historians.

Historians cannot and should not assign simplistic and irrelevant attributes to their subject. Such answers are almost always too simple and disregard many parallels and other factors. A historian has to try to see things as the person he is studying saw them: just because you do not agree with the principles of, say, Communism or Nazism in no way invalidates the fact that BOTH schools of political thought had ends which were deemed "good" in the eyes of their major figures. A Historian does not assume that someone with monstrous views is a fake, a liar. Look not for maniacs or monsters, look for things which made those maniacs or monsters- and indeed, a monster is a value judgement one should not be making at that point.

FEW THINGS HAPPEN IN ISOLATION.

Would Henry VIII have founded the Protestant Church of England, if it wasn't for Protestant agitation elsewhere? I think not. Wasn't Nazism the culmination of not only millennia of anti-Semitism but also a reaction against more recent German history? Could the American revolution really have had so much impetus without similar thought in Europe, and particularly France?

History is not made up of nice, neat little factlets. Casual study or "pet" theories can make one think that way, especially amongst TV Historians. Closer looks almost always negate or completely cancel such ideas. It is ALWAYS more complicated than you think.


JUSTIFY YOURSELF!

Yes, you'll hear that one a lot if ever you do history as a degree or upwards. In academic study of history, two things will become clear and will be repeated a lot:

1. How do you know what you know? Do you know the opposing views? Why are they invalid?

2. We don't know. True historians are less sure of their facts than anyone! That's why you see so few of them on T.V: because the public doesn't want someone stood there saying "well, we're not really sure....".

Believe me, a good lecturer will not let you get away with anything.....

BE EXTREMELY SCEPTICAL

When studying primary- or secondary- material, be sceptical. What motives might an author have for writing? Wouldn't one expect a Conservative writer to condemn the Trade Union movements? Or a Communist to condemn the ideas of Adam Smith (and therefore anything that came from such ideas)?. Wouldn't a Conservative Royalist condemn Cromwell? Bias is everywhere: it shouldn't be, but it is. One who believes in Jewish World Domination is also likely to believe that the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are real. These people are rarely MAD or LIARS.

Primary sources are no better: Robert of Jumieges (Norman historian to William I) write his account of the England/Normandy affair, stating that Archbishop Stigand crowned Harold King, whilst English sources state than he was crowned by Aldred, Archbishop of York. BOTH have powerful motives for saying what they did. Who is right?

Real Historians can give you the answer: "We don't really know".

In an academic setting, you will NOT get away with value judgements in the body of your work, you won't get away with ignoring counter-arguments, you will not get away with ignorance and you most certainly will not get away with Journalism or distorting facts a la Dan Brown. You will not get away with being shallow under the banner of being "succinct". "Succinct" answers do not really exist in history: try mathematics if you like succinct. Or Twitter. Circumstantial evidence is merely that: circumstantial. It "looks likely" but the real Historian's answer is: "we don't really know". Are you seeing a pattern here?

So when one writes a post about even the most simple of subjects, it almost always ends up more than a one line wonder. Perhaps, now you know why.

I am not suggesting that everyone does this! This is not a University, and most of us come to Historium for fun and casual debate. Each to their own, but study of history, like anything else, requires just a little effort.

But next time you come across a long post on a subject you like, why not take the time to read it? You'll learn many times more- or at least gain more to think about- (if you have an open mind: and if not, why not?), than a thousand, pat but ultimately empty one line wonders. You'll find lots of these: why add to them?

It does no-one any harm to have their ideas shook up from time to time. A closed mind accepts no more learning.

And, here's the good bit- it makes history even more fascinating and fun. Honestly!

But the more you learn, the less you'll find you are sure of.
Black Dog this is an absolutely awesome post. Your post paints an excellent picture of what we do and how we do it. I especially liked your piece about objectivity...an open mind leads to reading between the lines, which can unlock the many mysteries of a source.

I also concur with your comments about being skeptical. There's not much more I can say about it because you covered it so well.

I commend you on this post and thanks for sharing.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:28 AM   #4

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Re: History and Historians


The first two lines were good, I skipped the rest!


Nah, good post, through and through.

I've made the odd attempt at this kind of statement in the past (HERE and here).

One thing that I would be tempted to try and acquaint with your points is the ability to cite sources when challenged. The truth is that we're not (for the most part) academics but amateur historians reading, learning and regurgitating. But many disputes can be moved to a more placid level by discussing sources. (I've tried to make that point also: here and here.)

Good post.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:33 AM   #5

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Re: History and Historians


Citing sources: very very true.
If I'm in a historical debate in class with a student, and some think they know more than I do, they often only spout off with no support. And the same goes here. The more a person tries to convince me I'm so totally wrong, I look for sources (and not a total biased web link either) to support their claim.
History isn't an exact science, there's always room for finding a new piece of lost evidence about a person or event. When a Historian fails to even entertain the possibility that they're wrong, that lowers them to the lowest levels of credibility to me.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:38 AM   #6
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Re: History and Historians


Quote:
Originally Posted by avon View Post
The first two lines were good, I skipped the rest!


Nah, good post, through and through.

I've made the odd attempt at this kind of statement in the past (HERE and here).
Good post.
This is a good post too (from Avon's first link):
Quote:
How many of you guys read posts that are longer than a paragraph?? I'm beginning to wonder about whether or not it's actually worth the effort of writing long posts.
Must entirely agree.

After all, being read is supposedly the primary goal of any poster...
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:44 AM   #7

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Re: History and Historians


Quote:
Originally Posted by tjadams View Post
When a Historian fails to even entertain the possibility that they're wrong, that lowers them to the lowest levels of credibility to me.
Agreed...an open mind means an open mind...including the reality that one can error in their interpretations.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:46 AM   #8

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Re: History and Historians


Quote:
Originally Posted by avon View Post
The first two lines were good, I skipped the rest!


Nah, good post, through and through.

I've made the odd attempt at this kind of statement in the past (HERE and here).

One thing that I would be tempted to try and acquaint with your points is the ability to cite sources when challenged. The truth is that we're not (for the most part) academics but amateur historians reading, learning and regurgitating. But many disputes can be moved to a more placid level by discussing sources. (I've tried to make that point also: here and here.)

Good post.
I think combining what you did with what Black Dog contributed would make a solid introduction for any Introduction to History or Historical Methods course.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:46 AM   #9

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Re: History and Historians


"How many of you guys read posts that are longer than a paragraph??"

For me, that's a deal breaker. The topic alone will lure me in. But when the poster cuts and paste something thinking they get paid by the letter, that loses me. A point can be made in about 300 words then followed up in answering others who comment on the thread. Long threads or responses give me dead head.
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Old August 5th, 2010, 06:51 AM   #10
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Re: History and Historians


Black dog: Amen. I'd sign myself under that any time.
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